Reading fiction submissions for the online literary magazine where I am an assistant editor, it all feels so hopeless. I’m the guy who does the second reading of our submissions—the stories our volunteer readers have already rejected. My job is to catch anything that slipped through the cracks, hidden gems that our fiction readers, in their haste, inexperience or just by an accident of bad taste, rejected foolishly. This is rare. Mostly our readers do an excellent job, so my second reading is mainly ceremonial. It is part of our duty to honor the submitted work with two readings— it’s the least we can do since we don’t pay our writers. I also volunteer for hospice, and I find that my second reading is often similar to sitting vigil with a dying person. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, but it is still a privilege to be there at that moment of desolation, which is shared, even though only one of us must die. And so if the story is ultimately “not for us,” as it is with almost all of them, I’m the guy who sends those rejection letters. They are anonymous form letters stored in our submission manager. I just select which one we send. The wording changes depending on how much we liked the rejected story. The stories I look at, no one liked, and so I usually use our “blunt response” template.
It takes a toll on me, being the instrument of rejection, while at the same time my own stories are making the rounds of rejection at other magazines with other assistant editors and other volunteer readers. The hardest thing is rejecting stories with compelling cover letters—stories by soldiers abroad, single parents, teenagers, social workers, the incarcerated—people with hearts and souls and shadows and thin skin; their aspirations earnestly bleeding through every syllable of their introductions. Most of the editors I know don’t seem to let this kind of thing affect them, and indeed, I don’t either—I do my job, I send the letters, I try not to become too emotional about it. Lots of my friends tell me they don’t even read the cover letters—they say it, almost bragging, as if their reads are purer and cleaner as a result of staying emotionally detached from the personhood of the writer. This may be sound thinking, but, truthfully, the cover letters are my favorite part of the job—because, while the stories rarely break my heart, the cover letters routinely do. And I hate having my heart broken, but I also love having my heart broken. It is why I read, and it is why I write.
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