The Help Desk: Checkboxes of despair

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I received the worst rejection slip from a literary magazine in the mail the other day. It was a form letter with check boxes, and at the top it said "NOT ANOTHER…" and then there were a series of options for the editor to check off: "…poem about alcohol," "…short story about horses," that sort of thing. My checked box said "…memoir about mothers and daughters."

Cienna, I'm more than a little annoyed about this. There's a lot more to my piece than my mom's death, and I think the response is a little bit condescending and, yes, sexist. My friends mostly say I should be happy I got a response at all, but that snotty little checkmark haunts my dreams. Should I blog about this rejection letter experience, or would I just look like a bitter freelancer?

Luann, Rainier Valley

Dear Luann,

I’m sorry, that is both disappointing and unnecessarily catty. Anyone worth their salt — or the salt of your tears — should have the decency to be both honest and kind in their rejection. Like this:

Dear madam,

Thank you for your submission. Your piece was raw and moving, and I encourage you to continue submitting to other publications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with the tone of our magazine so we have to pass. You see, we are a literary magazine and thus we have a high bar to uphold in terms of both quality and content for our reader. From the feedback we receive, we know our reader is sophisticated, she enjoys sleepy short stories about the middle class in which nothing more startling happens than a blink. She is also a deep thinker who hates poetry and horses, and who happens to resent her own mother, which is why your story simply won’t suit (unless your mother’s death could be rewritten as more of a comedy?).

You may have noticed that literary magazines are experiencing something of an ecdysis, like when a snake sheds its skin only to reveal a dead snake underneath. Imagine a carpet of dying, molting snakes. In the literary world, we call this a “niche market.” In this niche market it pays to pander to our loyal audience of reader, and right now we’re niched so tight we can hear each other’s dying heartbeats. To mix a few metaphors, we are niched to the hilt. To Hell and back. I’m sure you understand we must keep our reader happy. Keep writing!


P.S. Change your gender and maybe we’ll talk!

I hope that letter helps put things in perspective. And yes, when in doubt you should always blog about your feelings. The internet is a carpetbag of freaks and wonder; someone is bound to find your insights helpful. Where else could I find a support group of fellow spider lovers struggling to discipline their out-of-control teens AND sweet discounts on Spanx?