I got a rejection email for a story I submitted to an English magazine in August. It’s a very short story – about 400 words, a so-called “flash fiction” piece – that has an extremely unusual twist in the last paragraph. It’s (delightfully, in my humble opinion) strange and thought-provoking, and everyone who has read it so far has given me wildly different interpretations. After reading it, one guy gave me brief lecture about a word in my title and its relation to the mechanical structure of a refrigerator; one woman thought it was about necrophilia before she read the clinching paragraph. I’ve also received more mundane feedback, but who wants to hear about that?
Anyway, in the rejection notice, the magazine editor wrote something that bemused me a bit. After telling me that the story was “contrived” (perhaps the most useless adjective possible for literary criticism, since there has never been any story that isn’t contrived) and had a “trick ending,” he went on to say:
It doesn’t have an arresting message or thought behind it, it’s something of a literary one-liner.
Once I passed through the various stages of grief, rather quickly I might add, I tried to consider what he meant with this feedback with a modicum of objectivity. Doesn’t the existence of a “trick ending” (I might call it a “severe and sudden paradigm shift requiring conscious reconsideration of the preceding paragraphs,” but okay, I’ll use his phrase) say something deeper about perception and expectation and presumption? Doesn’t the fact that every one of the dozen or so people who have read it all said they had to go back and read it again imply an “arresting message”? What’s more arresting than a re-read?!
The bit that bothered me the most, though, isn’t the dismissive terminology or skin-deep reading of the piece. Rather, I was most annoyed by the factual error in his critique. Because the literary equivalent of a one-liner is, in fact, a one-liner. My story has exactly 27 sentences in it, many of which take up more than one line using the preferred manuscript formatting instructions helpfully provided on the magazine’s website. If anything, it is not a literary one-liner, but a literary 37-liner. And that’s not counting the author bio!
(I’ll note here that a close second-place for most perturbing sentence in the rejection email was the one where he referred to the wrong title for my story. I’m guessing it was a copy-and-paste mistake, which seems a pretty egregious error for an editor….)
I replied – quite cordially I believe, although I’ve been told it’s hard to tell when I’m being sincere or ironical (likely because I am most of the time being both) – and expressed my disappointment in the editor’s assessment of my piece. I tried to explain briefly some of the things I’ve said in this post, but I don’t expect it to persuade him in any way. As he acknowledged at the end, it’s just one man’s opinion and highly subjective.
Besides, I’ve already submitted the story elsewhere.