Dispatches | March 07, 2011


Over the years we’ve occasionally had writers who took offense at being rejected by TMR. Some never submitted again. What more often happens is that after three or four tries here, a writer stops submitting on the grounds that we must not like their work.  Others hang in there and keep sending, up to twenty, thirty or more times. This year, both Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize winners in prose have, in the past, come right up to the brink of being published in TMR and then been let down.  For at least six years I’ve been reading work by Anna Solomon, our fiction winner, inviting her to send revisions in a couple of instances—and yet we’ve finally said no, until now. John Hales, the nonfiction winner, has been faithfully sending us near misses for probably fifteen years, perhaps more.  Patience and a degree of forgiveness of our past rejections has paid off this year for both of them.

“Blog about some manuscripts that came close recently that you almost accepted but didn’t,” someone suggested. People want to know why their manuscripts were rejected.”

I know they do.  So do I.

Experience tells me, though, that the reasons a capable manuscript is rejected may be difficult to articulate.  “Not quite” is a euphemism for a lot of serious problems.  But it can also mean precisely “not quite.”

Here are some of the problems with pieces that crossed my desk in the past week.  These were pieces that had been looked at and passed along by more than just one or two readers:

I saw—we often see—a couple of pieces with great verbal dexterity—marvelous lines but not much emotional impact. High concept that fails to engage readers’ sympathy is a related problem, and we saw that.

In one concept-driven story we read, the conceit was outright silly, though the writing was nice, and the writer had obviously worked hard. Also, characters who don’t feel or behave in plausible ways are everywhere.  Readers respond to characters based on their own individual experience, so this is partly a matter of familiarity and opinion; but if more than a couple of us have the same reaction, then the problem is really there. Unfortunately, it’s common.

Finally, several pieces were imitating current or recent trends or writers: one in collective voice, one with footnotes that made up quite a bit of the story.

Writing is hard, and none of the “misses” I’ve mentioned were terrible.  They just weren’t working, not for the TMR editors, right now. If there were a magic formula for immunity to literary rejection, I’d be selling it online.  Read, write, revise, submit, try again.  There it is.

Evelyn Somers is the assistant editor of The Missouri Review.