Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, by Lee Klein. Barrelhouse Books. 224 pages. $16.00, paper.
Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck collects a decade’s worth of pithy, humorous rejection letters sent to writers who hoped to publish in Lee Klein’s self-proclaimed “semi-literary” online journal, Eyeshot. This is not the stuff of “We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but we’ve decided not to publish …” No, these rejections are often metaphorical, pages-long responses—one might even call them critiques—that give writers insight into their literary flaws and calls them out on their amateur submission practices.
Klein, a writer, editor, and publisher, has been published in Agni, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and The Black Warrior Review, among other journals. He’s the author of Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World (Better Non Sequitur, 2004), and his book, The Shimmering Go-Between, is slated for release later this year by Atticus Books. Because he’s also suffered five hundred rejections of his own work, he knows how it feels to receive form rejections offering no insight whatsoever for the dismissals.
Some well-respected names have gone through the Klein cut, such as fiction writer Blake Butler, who says: “Somewhere on the brutal truth continuum between Bill Hicks and Mussolini, Lee Klein’s rejection letters are mini-masterpieces of literary criticism disguised as no-thank-yous from Writer’s Hell … They should be passing these things out under the pillows at MFA camp; we’d all be better off.”
Thanks‘ 220-plus pages contain snippets of Klein’s life trajectory. “The sole member of the Eyeshot editorial board” started the online journal in 1999 while still a single guy in Brooklyn. His weather reports and tales of events leading to hangovers appear at first as logorrheic small talk, but then it’s clear he uses them as parables of what’s wrong with the submitter’s piece. Take this example: “What is this character doing out at the bar with the boys and why should anyone follow him through a night of mojitos and glances and all that for 3390 words just to learn that the guy has a girlfriend or a wife or a female something in his bed?” He rambles on, sans punctuation (mocking what seems to be in vogue, according to what some other literary journals are publishing), about what happened when he went barhopping with friends the previous night and his return home to a house empty of his girlfriend.
Later Klein slows Eyeshot‘s publication for two years as he attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Then he moves to South Philly, drinking less and now living with his former long-distance girlfriend-cum-wife. Finally, the twosome becomes a family of three. That expansiveness echoes in Klein’s editorial skills and is one of the most redemptive parts of the book, reminiscent of what Michael Piafsky wrote about his years working as a reader for the Missouri Review.
Klein’s initial rejections tell writers he wants something with “oomph.” What does that mean? Of course, it’s difficult to codify some literary qualities but isn’t it irksome when editors spew an ocean of ambiguities trying to explain what they’re looking for? As he grows as a writer and publisher, he states his preferences more explicitly. He likes “amusing and inventive” writing that “proceeds associatively and insanely.” For example, “If you read the pieces on Eyeshot, you’ll see that most of them are a little more agitated or churning or unquiet or nervous or scatological or juvenile or free-associative, et cetera. I think the sensibility of this story is too mature, too solid, too trustworthy for us.”
Klein further assists writers by suggesting others to read and learn from: Nam Le, Russel Edson, Mark Leyner, David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Aldous Huxley, Grace Paley, and others. That’s effective. After all, isn’t it easier to relate to someone based on his literary preferences? Furthermore, before he closes his rejections with a Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck (hence the book’s title) and asks submitters to send more work, he points out what to do and not to do in submissions and writing.
Here are some of those lessons or reminders:
- Sloppy research is a quick way to get editors to send your work to the circular file. “‘Princess Leah’ ain’t right—it’s Leia,” Klein writes.
- Don’t try so hard to be literary. “You’re trying to write a little too hard, I think. As a reader, I can sense that insignificant sentences have been over-considered.”
- Familiarize yourself with journals before submitting to them. “If you have no idea what Eyeshot usually posts and are just sending scattershot submissions … please send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
- Read submission guidelines. “Please include boatloads of biographical information and links to every possible previous publication and the name of every professor you ever heard speak or slept with at your prestigious NYC MFA program you’ll soon graduate from +$80K in debt, and—very important!—make sure to mention how many times you’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.”
- Copyedit and proofread before submitting. “There’s more to writing than having fun composing—there’s also a super-serious aspect to it called ‘editing.'” He suggests, “Try to devote 90% more time to editing than to composing right now.”
Klein’s book is missing one large element: reflections on the larger world of publishing. Why not take a stance on how submissions, maybe even publishing itself, have changed over the course of a decade? By addressing the larger world of writing and publishing, Thanks may have read less as a showcase of one editor’s rejecting pen and more as a well-rounded, thoughtful consideration of this world we’re trying to decipher.
Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck is a good read, especially for writers striving to improve their work and their acceptance rates. It is cheaper and more effective than some conferences or writers retreats. Sample the book here.
Nichole L. Reber is a nonfiction writer whose work has received a gold Traveler’s Tales Solas Award. She’s been published in Recess, EastLit, and The Font.