Review: 'Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox' by Lee Klein

March 4, 2014
Reviewed by John Gardner
Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck by Lee Klein
Because the Internet is a place filled with infinite wonders both adorable and grotesque, I will give you the 140 character Twitter review first: This book is immensely entertaining, informative, and at times laugh out loud funny. You should get a copy, especially if you are a writer. Are you sold? Good! Here you go. You are now free to cruise the majestic Information Superhighway in search of cat videos and weird pornography. However, if you need a little more information, read on.
 
Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck is a collection of rejection letters written by Lee Klein to the various writers submitting to his web-zine over the last ten years. Klein edits Eyeshot.net, and somehow he has managed to do so without ever resorting to the form rejection letter. (For the uninitiated, some literary magazines and publishers receive thousands of submissions during their reading periods. I have trouble responding to my family without monotonously repeating the same six sentences, so I can imagine why it’s easier for most editors to prepackage something polite and send it to 90% of the writers whose work won’t fit.)

A book like this runs the risk of being voyeuristic toward the suffering of writers, but Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck manages to avoid that. Instead, it is an insightful look into the thought processes of a man who has been reading unsolicited manuscripts for a number of years. While I read, I often found myself pausing to try to recreate the rejected stories in my mind, which surely were worse in my imaginings than they were in Klein’s inbox. But who knows?

The letters collected here have a raw, off-the-cuff feel. They are personal reactions, evidenced by the bits of autobiographical information seasoned throughout. These letters aren’t cruel or dismissive; they’re just painfully honest. Some are brutally short. Others fill the page with insights into what the story did wrong or how it veered just slightly away from what he was looking for. Occasionally, Klein offers up surreal suggestions for what might have made the story more up his alley. One of my favorite bits from a rejection letter included the following text:        
"There were no alligators in it. Maybe if you exchanged the hail for alligators and the CEO for a baseball bat, we’d have something, but as it is, with neither alligator nor baseball bat, we cannot offer acceptance. Sorry. But thanks for submitting and good luck with this elsewhere!"

The ending of that quote is important because Klein almost universally goes out of his way to encourage the rejected writer to submit again. Often these letters include self-deprecation to blunt the trauma for the writer. Sometimes he waxes on the meaning of a rejection letter, which as almost all writers know, can feel devastating and personal. In one letter Klein writes: “The rejection has nothing to do with you or your children or your way of life. Only the piece of writing you sent me. You and it are different. I wrote about what you wrote.”

The reason I say that this book is especially good for writers is that some of these letters are short essays on the craft of writing and submitting stories. Klein muses on many aspects of storytelling, like “show, don’t tell” or how a story should veer from the reader’s expectations.

For the record, I am jaded on most writing advice. I’ve seen the same thoughts written a thousand different ways, by writers running the gambit from experienced to wannabe. That said, I found myself taking notes from some of the letters featured in Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck. One of the most profound pieces of advice I’ve read in a while was simple: “Think about the person on the other side of the screen — not me — but those so-called ‘readers.’ How do you want them to respond to your stuff? How do you want to move and manipulate them, make their minds go mmm?” It’s important to remember that before submitting to a journal you were an enthusiastic reader. The reader is why you edit your poem — so it embodies the emotion you want to portray and isn’t just scribbling in a notebook. Readers are why you don’t front load a story with a thousand words of exposition about the protagonist’s childhood. I know many writers who forget this fact — I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Whether or not you’ve visited Klein’s site or read the stories he posts over there, you will see that each story he rejects received as thorough a reading as it deserved. Klein is honest and unafraid to give a writer feedback. He pulls no punches. Writers who sent their work to Klein over the years were lucky to send work to an editor with the energy to personalize so many rejections. I will admit, if other editors tried to recreate what Klein pulls off here, it’d get old quickly. But there is something about his voice and the way Klein mixes his editorial authority with self-deprecating humor that makes this work. Do other editors reject with equal humor and brutal honesty, doing so in the safety of the shadows? Perhaps. Whether they do or not, Klein’s book serves as a reminder that it wouldn’t hurt if we worked a little harder to send editors stories that break them out of the fog of Nyquil and nicotine withdrawal. This book calls on us to up our writing game. For my money, that makes it well worth the read.

John F. Gardner
John F. Gardner lives in Warsaw, Indiana, a small town you've never heard of that controls whether or not you can get replacement bones. He has a wife, two sons, a cat, and a snake. He has written poetry reviews for Rattle, and his fiction appeared in the November issue of Fireside. He irregularly blogs (which is a weird verb and he’ll hopefully never use it again) at wombatdeamor.wordpress.com. You’re much more likely to find him on Twitter @wombatdeamor.


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