By Eric Rasmussen, Fiction Editor
As stated on Sundog Lit’s website, “…we care deeply about participating in a loving, ethical, and intersectional literary community.” This is a mission we take seriously, and it leads us to continually analyze the process of writing, submitting, discussing, and publishing creative work, in hopes of discovering ways of affecting change in the literary world. It was in this spirit that we decided to conduct an experiment with our fiction submissions.
Sundog’s submission window for issue 16 opened on October 1st, 2019, closed on December 31st, and yielded just under 300 fiction submissions. This time around, everyone rejected by the fiction team received a personalized note, based on the strengths and weaknesses of their stories. Here’s why.
But first, a few caveats.
- We are not advocating that other publications adopt this habit, nor are we promising that the Sundog will always provide individualized rejections.
- This experiment undermines one of the few pieces of capital a journal has to offer. Some journals sell individualized feedback in order to pay their bills. The personalized rejection can also function as a communication tool to indicate respect, or to signify a writer who has reached a certain publishing echelon. Our intention was not to subvert the use of the personalized rejection as an economic or communication device.
- Sundog is not the first publication to offer feedback on all (or many or most) of its submission responses.
- None of these rejection efforts should be taken as an indication that we don’t treat all of our submissions, regardless of genre, with consideration and respect.
- Of course, writing is subjective, and we make no guarantee that the suggestions we provided are right, true, or will lead to acceptances at our journal or any other.
Why did we attempt this?
We wanted to see what would happen if Sundog rejected stories in the manner that we would prefer to be rejected. Call it the golden rule of literary publishing. What would it take to provide the following?
- Proof that someone read the work, because stories abound of stacks of submissions going unread prior to rejection, or of decisions being made in the first few sentences.
- Confidence that whoever read each submission did so with an open mind, because it’s easy to assume that submissions assigned to students or overextended volunteer readers may not receive their full attention.
- Assurance that every piece stood a chance of being published. Most of us pledge to be welcoming and supportive of other writers, but in the giant literary lunchroom, lots of wordsmiths are still sitting by themselves for reasons of education, geographic location, income, age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and numerous other factors. We all know that journals solicit work*, and we’ve all seen evidence of MFA, Twitter, and other conference and writing workshop connections leading to acceptances. It’s too easy to assume, without evidence to the contrary, that a rejection might be due to social factors, instead of storytelling ones.
Much of this can be accomplished in only a sentence or two inserted into an otherwise form rejection. So, that’s what we tried.
What happened as a result?
In the immediate aftermath of sending these rejections, we received an overwhelming number of thank you notes. One submitter discussed going her entire career (which includes publishing novels and work in many top-tier publications) without ever hearing the reasoning behind a rejection. Any other effects beyond such appreciation remain to be seen. Maybe we’ll move up the “Most Approachable” list on Duotrope, which will lead to additional submissions. Maybe other journals will consider how their rejection practices link with their stated missions and seek out their own ways of improving the literary community. We’d like to think that, of the 300-ish writers we communicated with, maybe a few will find additional inspiration to revise their stories or craft new ones. Or maybe nothing will happen, and the literary world will chug along as it always has.
What did we learn?
Acceptances are great. They validate authors and their voices, and the literary world spends a lot of time focusing on what sorts of people make up the tables of contents in the publications we love.
But maybe the rejection is a missed opportunity. 282 people requested that Sundog Lit help give credence to their perspectives, ideas, and lived experiences, and we had to regretfully say “No thank you.” But this time around, we tried to uplift the writers we rejected, in addition to those we accepted. In the process, we learned our biggest lesson. No effort offered in support of others is ever wasted.
Thanks for reading Sundog Lit, and thanks for submitting your work. In the upcoming months, we pledge to use this space and our social media presence to continue the discussion of submission practices, and we will keep trying to innovate new ways of supporting all writers, especially those who are still struggling to gain access to the literary publishing world. We are thankful for everyone who connects with Sundog Lit, and we will keep trying to prove it to you.
*In issue #16, we published work from six fiction writers, and all were chosen from the submission pile. One of the pieces had been submitted to Sundog previously, and the author followed revision suggestions provided in the rejection before resubmitting. Sundog’s fiction team will solicit pieces in the future, but we will always reserve space for work from slush pile as well.