Me Fail English? That’s Unpossible!

So I got a new rejection today–I won’t say for what story, or what venue, or what editor–and I must confess this one actually bothered me, and continues to do so long hours after the initial disappointment has passed.

Now, I get lots of rejections. Every writer does. I’m currently running better than 10:1 rejections to acceptances. And sure there’s a few moments of disappointment that you haven’t sold to Magazine X or Anthology Y or Website Z when you open up that rejection letter. After all, sending out stories is a bit like playing the lottery: no matter how well tailored you think your story might be for a given market (your ‘lucky numbers’) you never know which ones will hit. And the masochistic fun of writing is the anticipation of “Maybe this will be one that sells.”

But then it doesn’t. And you’re sad…for about five minutes while you type up a new cover letter, affix stamp to envelope, and mail the story out to the next market. Then you’re expectant again and the cycle continues.

And if you aren’t perverse enough to enjoy that, well, you (and your ego) won’t last very long as a writer.

So after getting 10 rejections for each acceptance I’ve had means taking rejection is no big deal…usually.

The rejection I got this morning was clearly personal and tailored to my story, the editor explaining that he didn’t like the narrative voice, the journal format, that he felt detached and disengaged while reading, and that he’d seen a number of stories with similar endings.

Okay. Fair enough. He didn’t like it. Happens all the time. Doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong with the story, it just didn’t grab this particular editor and wasn’t as good a fit for that market as I thought. No problem. That’s a rejection I can take. I happen to disagree about the quality of the story, which is why I’ll be sending it out again somewhere else tomorrow.

However, what has pissed me off the whole rest of the day was the little parting shot he felt the need to include:

“You misuse pronouns constantly.”

Whaaaaaat?

As I said, I can handle all the rest of his opinions about the story; they don’t bother me a bit. This? Well, this is saying I don’t understand one of the most basic features of English-language writing.

In short it says: “You don’t know how to write.”

Not: “You can’t write”–which people say when they mean you can’t tell a good story–but “You don’t know how to write,” as in “You can’t construct basic written sentences in your native language.”

On a deeper level it questions my competence and professionalism as a writer: it says I clearly don’t edit or proof-read my work; it says I don’t get anyone to read my stories before I send them out; it says I’m wasting editors’ time by sending my stuff out at all.

And hey, know what? If I didn’t neurotically edit or proof-read my work, if I didn’t have a group of readers (five in this case, including a number of other writers, one Masters candidate, and my buddy who is graduating with his Ph.D. this summer) read my stuff and who catch sentence-level errors I miss, or if, after all that, errors persisted and I looked through my story and said: “By the power of Grayskull–I did misuse pronouns!” well, I’d accept the criticism, change the story, and be grateful that somebody caught my error.

But you know what?

He’s wrong. Just plain wrong.

Not only did I not see any pronoun errors when writing or editing the story, not only did no one who read the story note any pronoun errors (confirmed for me this afternoon by one of the readers), but after re-reading the whole story at lunch I didn’t find a single one.

Now, I’ve written a lot of stories, even more essays in school, I have a Masters degree, my day job is as an editor of scholarly books–I’d like to think I’m not a schmuck. I know how to construct an English-language sentence. I know the difference between first-person singular (I), first-person plural (we), second-person (you), third-person singular masculine (he), third-person singular feminine (she), third-person singular neuter (it), and third-person plural (they), between their subjective and objective uses, etc.

So more than making me question this editor’s competence, what bothers me is the injustice of his erroneous claim that I don’t get this most basic concept. And I’m sorely (an unprofessionally) tempted to write back and decry his error. Whether or not he likes the story or my storytelling ability I don’t care at this point. What I can’t bear is the accusation that I don’t know how to write. Whatever you think of the content of my sentences, you can be assured that they are at least put together correctly.

But hey, there’s no use arguing. Besides, it’s not the supposed grammatical infelicities that turfed the story from this collection–the editor didn’t like the tale or its telling. He’s passed judgment and there will be no convincing him now, grammar-checks included. And it’s his Magazine X or Anthology Y or Website Z and he gets to publish what he wants there.

So as for his error, I guess sometimes you just have to shut up and take it…or failing that, blog about it. 🙂

– S.

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