Rejection letters — gotta love ’em. In this morning’s mail was a polite, personal rejection from an editor of a major sf/fantasy zine, I’m not going to say which one. This editor has bought my work in the recent past, but today’s letter said:
“Well, this is definitely the wrong market for ‘Into the Gulf.’ I’m looking forward to the next one as long as it’s not a zombie story.” [Italics in original.]
Trying to mind-read an editor is seldom worth the effort, but in this case I don’t think it’s really the zombies that are the problem. The story includes (a) disgusting zombies, (b) casual profanity, because that’s the way these characters talk, (c) cannibalism, and (d) a depressing, downbeat ending. My suspicion is that it’s items (b) and (c) that are causing the problem, not (a) and (d).
I’m pretty sure the editor would acknowledge that if asked. The letter mentioned only the zombies because editors have to dash off one-sentence letters in a hurry.
I’m sure fiction magazines are eager these days not to offend anyone, especially librarians. The fiction market has shriveled, and a few lost sales might well be the tipping point that would cause the parent corporation to shut the doors. We’re lucky there are still any magazines that regularly buy short sf and fantasy!
But is “Into the Gulf” a bad story? No, I don’t think so. I’m not in a position to be objective, but I feel pretty strongly that it’s a great story. It makes an observation about the modern world — in a graphic way, to be sure — that is well worth making. The writing is good, because my writing is always good. The lead character is even likeable.
The problem with this type of rejection (and I’m not blaming the editor in question!) is that it invites the author to engage in self-censorship. The next time I sit down to write a story, I’ll probably steer clear of material that, however emotionally compelling, would be too graphic.
I will, in short, start to water down my stories.
But that’s more or less the way it goes. We’re all zombies on this boat.