Letter of Rejection
by Julianne Cordray
We had a number of high-quality applications this year. The selection process was not easy…
We regret to inform you…
We’re sorry to deliver disappointing news…
I started thinking more about the language used in rejection letters when I actually had to write one myself. I didn’t want to recycle the same empty phrases, but somehow I found myself unable to avoid them. I felt stuck in the same generic, formulaic statements, which felt even more problematic, since we were in the process of producing an issue on the topic of bureaucracy.
Preceding our work on this issue, we had talked about calls for submissions and how we can organize them in a way that is less bureaucratic – a way that doesn’t require people to put in loads of unpaid labor. In the first call for submissions we ran, we asked for short pitches, because we thought that would mean less time and work for those submitting. For the second call, we realized that, actually, people should be able to submit complete works if they already exist, rather than always having to come up with something new – especially just for a one-off issue. But then, no matter how open we had tried to make our call for submissions, we still had to make exclusions in the end – we couldn’t accept every submission.
It’s really cool that you found our call for submissions and decided to share your work with us! We appreciate that a lot.
We hadn’t thought about how to respond to those whose submissions weren’t accepted. I, and we, have of course received our own share of rejections. We had even applied twice to the Berlin Senate for funding this year – in the end, submitting more or less the same project proposal, we received one rejection and one acceptance (which has largely allowed us to fund this issue). But the rejections we’d received seemed useful when it came to having to put our own rejection responses together. We could refer to those letters to see which parts worked and which did not.
1. “We’re sorry to deliver disappointing news, but we won’t be accepting your work for publication.”
- This maybe sounds too stern. I feel a bit reprimanded, or something. I’m not sure, but I don’t love hearing it.
2. “We’re sorry to inform you that, after careful consideration, we could not find a place for your work in our next issue.”
- Maybe a bit better. Sounds more like they tried to place the work, but there just literally wasn’t enough space. Somehow I can live with that.
I thought: what do I want to hear in a rejection? And I tried to work from there, making it clear that the selection isn’t a final word on quality – that someone else’s submission wasn’t necessarily, unequivocally better than yours. This seemed necessary to say, and was also something that I felt I had learned by being on the other side of the submissions process. That it’s just people making decisions – not an objective statement or straightforward presentation of facts. This is in contrast to the language used in many rejections, which is characterized by a sort of neutrality and detachment – as if to say, this is just the way it is, as though it were the result of some mysterious outside force.
We know that it’s disappointing – and probably frustrating and maybe even discouraging – but we haven’t selected your work for publication this time. We say “this time”, because we genuinely hope you will submit again (though we also understand if you don’t).
But in the end, I over-thought it and backtracked everything that gave it a slightly more personal touch, until it was barren – becoming the same generic and automated sort of message, smothered in overcompensating friendliness. But, as one of our contributors mentions in this issue, such niceties often just get in the way of constructive feedback.
We don’t aspire to be gatekeepers or to have the last word on quality. We had to make a selection and we chose the works that we connected with the most and which, we felt, came together in a cohesive yet varied whole.
I recently came across a residency open call with an application process that included a written review and feedback from the jury on all applications. This is a good idea. Applicants frequently put in a great deal of work and effort, and when they are not accepted, it can feel like a frustrating waste of time. Honest and constructive feedback would already be a helpful step – to know what someone liked about my submission, and what they didn’t, for example. But for the residency program just mentioned, applicants also pay a submission fee, which can be a lot for some. Of course, providing in-depth feedback and a written review of each applicant is labor that needs to be compensated. And so often those making the selections, especially in smaller organizations, are doing it next to other tasks and work, and there might not be sufficient time and financing to allow for this. So it becomes a question of putting sustainable structures in place to make sure everyone’s labor is appropriately cared for. In the end, perhaps this also means not accepting more submissions or applications than you can manage.
To add to that, emails – like many forms of digital messaging – have this quality of being perfunctory. It’s everyday admin that we often just try to get through, so we can spend our time on something else.
Admittedly, the rejection responses were an afterthought for us. But they’re also an integral part of the submissions process. And as my partner so delicately put it when asked for his opinion: “Why would you write the same standard rejection when you are trying to critique these exact processes and structures?”
He was right, of course. And the fact is, there is a better way.
Thinking about open call processes was the starting point for this issue. Rejection is the end point in many ways, but maybe we can start to think about it from the beginning.
Juli / The Editorial Team
Julianne Cordray is an art writer, editor and publisher living and working in Berlin, Germany. Her writing has been featured internationally in magazines and journals online and in print, including ArtConnect Magazine, Berlin Art Link, Hyperallergic, Vienna Art Week, and THE SEEN – art journal of EXPO Chicago, among others. Her essays and translations have also appeared in publications commissioned by artists, institutions and galleries, including Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin and Kunstverein Göttingen. In 2018, she co-founded textur, which was awarded a Visual Arts Project Space Grant 2021 by the Berlin Senate. In 2020, she was awarded Critic in Residence at studio das weisse haus in cooperation with Vienna Art Week.