September 19, 2007
Dear John Milton, I Wish Your Paradise Would Get Lost
To be an editor is, at least in part, to be a destroyer of dreams. One of my first responsibilities at InterVarsity Press was to oversee (and, let’s face it, overlook) the “slush pile”—unsolicited solicitations from would-be IVP authors, ranging from apologetic young scholars trying to publish before they perish to would-be apostles thinking they’ve just written the next Bible. To lick the envelope that contains the form letter informing these author-wannabes that they’ve been rejected for publication is to step into a long and storied stream of publishing history.
Lisa Cockrel, an editor at Brazos Press, turned me on to an article David Oshinsky wrote for the New York Times recounting his experience mining the archives of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and finding letters politely or frankly rejecting some of the great minds and literary works of the twentieth century. Those folks had it down to an art form—their letters were virtually Pulitzer prizeworthy; you knew from reading the well-crafted rejection that your writing wasn’t up to snuff.
Nevertheless, the rejection-I-mean-review process of a publishing house is almost unavoidably, in Oshinsky’s words, “wildly subjective, reflecting the quirks and biases of the reviewer.” The challenge facing the editor is obvious, if you have the stomach to put yourself in his or her shoes: with space, in our case, for about ninety new books a year, and with upwards of 1,500 proposals plunking down annually in the in-box, and with dozens of competing publishers simultaneously vying for the attention of a fickle reading public that is reading statistically fewer and fewer books, the stakes are high and the prospects are dim.
That being said, editors are not completely heartless. There’s a reason we’re here, I’m told: We have generally good instincts about what makes for good writing that people will read. As Oshinsky readily avers, “Even in the rejection files, where negativity reigned, the great bulk of the reader’s reports seemed fair-minded and persuasive. Put simply, a rejected manuscript usually appeared to deserve its fate.” Beyond that, editors will even try to maintain a big-picture view of the author behind each proposal; sometimes it’s a matter of timing, sometimes it’s a matter of mismatch. For Knopf, “cultivating fresh talent was a process in which doors must remain open, . . . the next manuscript might well be the charm.”
So for all you writers out there who can’t stand the thought that some heartless philistine such as myself is passing judgment on your brilliant prose, cut me some slack, Jack Kerouac: there are sixteen editors just like me out there who felt perfectly justified in rejecting Anne Frank.