Short Story: We Regret to Inform You by David Sheskin

And then there is my favorite story, ‘The Henpecked Hippopotamus,’ a charming but ironical exposition on the eccentricities of puberty. For some inexplicable reason this little gem has be returned to me nineteen times. But why go on? The fact of the matter is, the rejections are finally getting to me.

I am a writer. At least I like to think I am. But to be perfectly honest, it gets harder and harder to nurture that particular belief when every week approximately fourteen more rejection slips arrive in the mail. Most of the time the slips consist of impersonal replies printed on small slips of paper. On rare occasions some editor notes in script something to the effect that my story contained some interesting ideas or that he found it humorous, and that he’d be interested in seeing some more of my work. But, more often than not, the editors say nothing. Some, in fact, don’t even bother to include a rejection slip, and this is something I find particularly annoying.

Since embarking on this ludicrous adventure I’ve always harbored the belief that it is equitable to expect reimbursement for one’s efforts. In view of this, until recently it has been my policy to submit my work only to those publications which offer one remuneration. But I must admit that over the past few months my resolve has weakened. After one thousand two hundred and fifty-two rejection slips even the best of men are forced to compromise their standards. And, of course, there was also my wife — a pragmatic woman who earns her living counseling deranged human beings, and passes her spare time in front of an easel immersed in the complexities of Chinese painting. Night after night she told me that my first priority should be to get published, and not any monetary gains that might accrue from my efforts. Finally I buckled under the pressure of her logic — but in all frankness, since my reluctant acquiescence to the prospect of publication without compensation, things have not improved. And because of this I have now reached the point where I am willing to do anything to get into print. So I swallow my pride and send one particular manuscript, which by now is all yellowed and dog eared, to an obscure little biannual which only pays in contributor’s copies. The address of this little publication is some communal farm located outside of Walla Walla, Washington, which happens to be run by an ex-alcoholic who spends the better part of his waking hours milking cows, growing pot, and reading the literary creations of would-be writers who have exhausted all other avenues of expression. Six months later this so-called editor sends me a letter (which I swear is soiled with the milk of some four legged animal) that says I certainly have an interesting head, and that he’d really like to publish my story, but unfortunately ‘The Hypotenuse of Madame Curie’s Nose’ is a bit too wordy and far too esoteric for a modest little publication such as his. And he suggests that I really shouldn’t be too upset by his letter because anybody who writes the way I do certainly has talent and is bound to get published sooner or later. And, by the way, he tells me, if I ever happen to be passing through the Pacific Northwest make sure to stop by the farm and say hello. To this I say — oink, oink.

And that is how things are.

But I digress, for as I sit here attacking the keys of my word processor, I can see our mailman winding his way up the driveway, and in his hands are two large manila envelopes, both of which undoubtedly contain manuscripts which my wife and I, as well as an assorted number of friends and relatives, believe to be of sufficiently high quality to warrant publication. I meet him at the door.

“Well, it looks like someone’s returning a few more of your stories Mr. Darling. Must get pretty frustrating getting all them rejection letters.”

“Yeah, it is Mr. Barton, but as long as a man has his health and family, well, what the hell, you know, a person can live with anything.”

I must admit that I have a certain degree of hostility toward this man, who since I have known him always seems to have been the bearer of bad news. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, he has discovered the fact that I am a writer, and in all likelihood he imagines that I am not a very good one, or why would all my manuscripts be returned to me?

I watch this aging servant of communication head across the street to a large white house which belongs to one Stanley J. Parkinson, who also just happens to be a writer — but one who rarely gets rejection slips. Of course, this information has been volunteered to me by Mr. Barton, who also provides me with reports detailing the specifics of Mr. Parkinson’s success. Naturally I accept all of what Barton tells me, since I have read much of what Parkinson has written, and must in all candor admit that the man is a talented writer, although I don’t believe him to be quite as blessed as I am with a gift for being glib. Suddenly I decide this thing has gone far enough. Isn’t it sufficiently distressing that I must suffer the indignity of rejection almost daily? Why, on top of everything else, should the man who delivers my mail, a man who is prone to chattering idly, be allowed to harbor the impression (which, no doubt, he communicates to others) that I am something of an incompetent when it comes to the art of self-expression? So I act. Opening the door, I flag old Barton down.

“Hey Barton!”

“You call me Mr. Darling?”

“Yeah, come back here a minute.”

And as the old fart trudges his way back up my driveway I hurriedly open one of the manila envelopes he has handed to me, and observe that The Crime and Grime Review has returned to me ‘These Pipes Are Not for Smoking,’ a short but pithy piece on crime in the sewers. Stuffing the rejection slip into my pocket, I hold out the manuscript to my mailman.

“Hey Barton, I’d like you to read one of my stories.”

“Well. . . heck, why would you want me to do something like that?”

“Look, you just take the story and read it and let me know what you think of it. Okay?”

And I shove it into his hand. Reluctantly he takes the manuscript and deposits it inside his jacket. Although the bastard will probably fold, mutilate, and spindle my work, not to mention drip all varieties of liquids upon it, I really don’t believe that having to type over an eleven page manuscript is too great a price to pay to obtain the respect of one’s mailman — especially if he is one who disseminates information regarding one’s professional competence to such persons as Stanley J. Parkinson.

Closing the door behind me I notice that the second of the manila envelopes which Barton has given me is unusually light. Could it be it is a letter of acceptance, and that instead of using an envelope bearing its own letterhead, this particular magazine informs you by inserting the good news in your own self-addressed stamped envelope? So I open what the mailman has given me, only to find one piece of paper upon which is written in blue India ink the following statement.

In this country the good writer does get read . . . I don’t believe that there are better writers than Hemingway, Faulkner, Cozzens, and I pining away in Brown County, Indiana, or in the espresso joint on Third Street, or on the faculty of East South Dakota A & M. Good writers get published, and they then cease to be somewhat unknown.
~John O’Hara 

Since beneath the script there are some colorful depictions of birds and flowers in what by now is an already familiar Chinese style, I immediately know who had played this cruel prank on me. Hours later, after the two of us have vigorously debated the wisdom of her delivering advice in the form of literary banalities sent through the mail, my spouse succeeds in convincing me that perhaps it would be best if I took a more assertive stance and attempted to get some constructive feedback on my work from a credible source. In view of this, I take it upon myself to place a phone call to Roger Ballantine, fiction editor of Audacity, a high-powered magazine to which I have sent approximately twenty-four manuscripts during the past four years. After a considerable amount of persuasion I convince two secretaries and one associate editor that it is urgent that I speak to Mr. Ballantine. 

Finally he comes on the line 

“Look Mr. Darling, I’m a very busy man. Exactly why are you calling me?”

“I am calling you Mr. Ballantine because every time I send a manuscript to your magazine it is returned to me within three weeks with the same form letter attached to it informing me that unfortunately it doesn’t meet your present needs. To pursue things further Mr. Ballantine, every time I send that same manuscript to a magazine published by one of your colleagues I receive a similar reply. I am forty-five years old, sir, and have always been considered by people who know me to be both a bright and articulate individual. For years my friends suggested to me that I should take up writing since I happen to have a real flair for the English language. But after four years of constant work, what do I have to show for my efforts? I’ll tell you what — one thousand two hundred and fifty-two rejection slips and more than one thousand canceled stamps I have removed from self-addressed stamped envelopes which have contained some eighty-five different manuscripts, all of which have been returned to me innumerable times by all varieties of publications.   

“So the reason I am calling you Mr. Ballantine is to ask you what the hell is wrong with my stories! And if you’re going to tell me that you’re too busy to critique each and every story you receive or that you don’t read most of the stories yourself, well, I do not consider those to be acceptable responses.”

“I see . . . I . . . well, I don’t know quite what to say to you. But the fact is I really don’t recall any of your work offhand.”

“Then you yourself do read all the manuscripts your publication receives?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I read them all from start to finish.”

“Mr. Ballantine, would it be possible for you to read my next manuscript from start to finish, and then take a few minutes to document your perceptions of it using such things as nouns and verbs, but especially adjectives and adverbs to communicate to me exactly what is lacking? In fact Mr. Ballantine, according to my records I sent a manuscript to your office four days ago, and thus it should be on your desk right now or within the next few days. This latest effort of mine is entitled ‘The Passion of Naomi Wilderness’ and is a twenty-four pages in length. I would really appreciate it if you would record your impressions of it using a minimum of two hundred words, and relay this information to me within the next week or so in order that I might begin immediately to make the appropriate modifications in my style of writing.”

“Mr. Darling, I realize you’re quite upset, but at the same time I can’t allow you to coerce me into treating you differently than I would anyone else who submits to us. I will, however, watch for your story, and if we can’t use it I’ll attempt to make a few comments. That’s all I can tell you right now. I have to hang up since I have a great deal of work to do. Good day.”

Dear Editor,

This form should be discarded in the event the attached manuscript is accepted for publication. If, on the other hand, the manuscript is rejected, the author would appreciate it if you took a few minutes to answer the questions below which attempt to identify those critical variables responsible for its rejection. By doing this you will provide the author with information that will allow him to become a better writer, and thereby in the future better serve your publication and others similar to it. It is essential that you respond to all items and that you be completely honest in your responses.



Douglas Darling

1. Please state the name and position of the person who has read the enclosed manuscript and is filling out this questionnaire.

2. How much of the manuscript did you read?
a) I did not read beyond the first page; b) more than one page but less than four pages; c) most of the manuscript; d) all of the manuscript 

3. Is the content of the manuscript what you consider appropriate for your publication?

Yes _____    No _____

(If your answer was no, indicate briefly why you consider it to be inappropriate.)

4. Would you say that you read the manuscript: a) casually — browsed over it; b) moderately carefully; c) extremely carefully

5. Which of the following alternatives would best describe your feelings at the time you read the manuscript? a) I was tired from having read many other manuscripts; b) I was tired or not feeling well because of factors other than reading manuscripts; c) I felt okay, but was not as alert as I could have been; d) I felt extremely alert.

6. I would place this manuscript in/at the _% of all manuscripts received by our publication.
a) top 1%; b) top 10%; c) top 25%; d) about the 50th percentile; e) below the 50th percentile 

7. Using the scales below indicate for each of the adjective word pairs the numerical value which you believes comes closest to describing this manuscript. If for any word pair the adjectives are not applicable, place a check in the parenthesis under the column marked A. If for a given word pair you are unable to respond as a result of not having read enough of the manuscript, place a check in the parenthesis under the column marked B.          
          (A)                                        (B)

a) boring       1..2..3..4..5      interesting 

b) humorous    1..2..3..4..5   lacking in humor

c) professional  1..2..3..4..5   unprofessional

d) believable     1..2..3..4..5    unbelievable

e) fluid style      1..2..3..4..5    labored writing

f) neat appearance 1..2..3..4..5  sloppy 

g) imaginative   1..2..3..4..5     unimaginative

h) provocative   1..2..3..4..5    unprovocative

i) predictable     1..2..3..4..5    unpredictable

8. Please note any additional comments you have concerning the manuscript below.

Thank you for your time and effort.


Hey, you say you don’t believe it? You say you don’t think that anyone would have the gall or stupidity or whatever you want to call it to send something like that to an editor every time he sends out one of his stories. Then you obviously don’t know me. Look, my wife is thrilled, and frankly I am more than a bit curious about the types of responses I will get. Of course, there is the not-too-remote possibility that I am committing professional suicide, but what the hell, I am willing to take my chances and hope that, at the very least, certain people have a sense of humor. And anyway, this sudden passion I have for feedback has improved my marriage considerably, since the wife for the first time actually believes she is using her therapeutic skills productively on me. And this is a smart woman. Of this I am finally convinced. Why, if it had not been for her I’d have added one final item to my questionnaire—an inquiry concerning the last time the respondent had experienced an orgasm which was the direct result of he or she having engaged in sexual intercourse. You see, I have always subscribed to the belief that if one is horny one is bound to be hypercritical. Yet my wife has persuaded me to confine such theories to my fiction. And I have agreed to listen to this woman for at least a few more weeks.

Old Barton does not say much to me these days. It has now been a week since I handed him my manuscript. On Monday he nodded to me and on Wednesday when he saw me looking out of our bay window he winked. He gives no hint by the expression on his face on whether or not he has read my manuscript, and if he has what he thinks of it. I have decided that I will wait a total of four weeks before broaching the subject with him. This is the length of time one would expect to elapse before one would hear from any efficiently run literary magazine that was the recipient of a relatively small number of submissions.

So as I wait Barton out I sit at home during the day absorbed in my craft. Although my wife has suggested that I refrain from passing out other manuscripts to our letter carrier, I cannot help myself when the pest control man comes to our house this afternoon to deal with an infestation of ants. His name is Trevor and he is a gaunt looking man with a long, greasy ponytail. On both of his arms as well as his neck there are numerous tattoos that appear quite stark against the pale tone of his skin. I have only met him once before today, yet that one time we exchanged words I came away with the impression he was moderately literate. So as he crouches in the basement attempting to annihilate a colony of ants, I approach him.  

“Trevor, I was wondering if you could do me a favor?”

“Exactly what do you want man?”

“Well, you see, I’m a writer, and I’d like to find out what all different kinds of people think of the stuff I write. So maybe you could take this story I’ve written with you and give it back to me the next time we see one another?”

By this time the two of us have climbed up the basement stairs and made our way to the front door. As the man looks at me with a somewhat puzzled expression on his face, I offer him a photocopy of Spirochetes in the Springtime.

“Why don’t you take it?”

“Sheet man, I ain’t got no time to read your stuff!”

“Look, just take it and if you get a chance look it over. I’d really appreciate it.”

So I stuff a fiver in his palm and suddenly he grabs the manuscript and without another word the man walks off to his truck. Luck would have it that old Barton just happens to be coming up the driveway at the moment Trevor reaches the street. Of course Barton can’t help but notice that our meter man is carrying in his right hand something that appears to be a manuscript. Yet he makes no mention of this as he hands me one of my self-addressed stamped envelopes, and before he heads across to Parkinson’s house he speaks to me for the first time since I gave him my story.

“I guess you’ve probably heard that Parkinson’s going to Hollywood to make a movie out of one of his books?”

I just smile and quietly close the door.

It has now been two and one half weeks since I gave Barton my story. I do not discuss with my wife the fact that I am eagerly anticipating my mailman’s evaluation of my work. Of course I have not confided to her anything of my indiscretion with the exterminator. 

This morning while I was delivering one of my manuscripts to the post office, a different letter carrier presented himself at our front door and handed to my wife a manila envelope which contained one of the feedback questionnaires I had attached to my manuscripts. Upon opening the envelope I observed that along with the standard rejection slip, which had been clipped to my story, an identical slip had been stapled to the questionnaire, and at the bottom of the second slip someone had scribbled, “Please do not send us more than one manuscript at a time!”

Last week I noticed that old Barton is no longer delivering our mail. It appears that he has been replaced by a younger man who seems reluctant to engage in any sort of conversation. Nevertheless, when I asked him what had become of his predecessor he told me that Barton had retired. Understandably, for the past few days I have tried (without success) to obtain Barton’s home address. When I confronted the local postmaster and told him that I gave the now defunct letter carrier one of my manuscripts, he looked at me in the most unusual way. All he would tell me was that it was against department regulations to divulge the whereabouts of any of its employees. He made it a point to say that perhaps if it were an emergency he might make an exception, but in this instance obviously such a situation did not exist. Because of what has happened I really don’t expect I’ll see my manuscript again.

It is two weeks since I have learned of Barton’s retirement and today Audacity returned to me ‘The Passion of Naomi Wilderness.’ The manuscript was the only thing in the envelope. For the first time since I have been dealing with them Audacity neglected to attach one of its silver and blue rejection slips to my story.

This past week has been, to say the least, frustrating. In addition to the Audacity rejection, I received two more manuscripts to which I had attached my feedback questionnaire. One of the forms was unmarked, while the other had written upon it in bold black magic marker, “Don’t send us any more stories if you’re going to enclose crap like this!”

It is June and more than three months have passed since I gave Barton my manuscript. Last week I received for the first time from Audacity a handwritten note attached to one of my stories. It read:

Mr. Darling,

Do not send us any more manuscripts. We will not read them. In fact, we won’t even bother to return them to you.

Letters such as this are never signed.

A week before July fourth I receive a communication, from of all people, Barton. It arrives in a manila envelope with the copy of ‘These Pipes Are Not for Smoking’ which I handed to him some four months earlier. The communication is brief and consists of a message that is professionally printed on grey stationary, at the top of which are embossed Barton’s name and address. It reads: 



Written at the bottom of this communication in a script I had seen many times on postage due envelopes was the message:

P.S.: Doug — In the future make sure to include a SASE with all manuscripts — S.O.B.

Probably because he is not due for at least two months, today the exterminator sent his son over to return my manuscript. This child, who most definitely has the face of his father, can be no older than ten. As he hands me a copy of ‘Spirochetes in the Springtime’ the boy says, “My daddy tells me to give you dis and dat you should make all dem correcshuns he puts on each page. Den everything’ll be all right.”

I am shocked to discover throughout my manuscript numerous scribblings in red ink. Although these scribblings suggest some changes I am not in complete agreement with, I decide in view of the fact that this is the only constructive feedback I have received in months I will take a chance and follow what undoubtedly is the advice of a thirty some year old exterminator who never got beyond the eighth grade. As soon as I have edited the manuscript as per his instructions I will submit it to Flaming Libidos.

This afternoon while browsing through some magazines at our local drugstore I happen to pick up the latest issue of Audacity, and notice that on page sixty-one someone by the name of Stephen O. Barton has published a fictional piece entitled ‘These Pipes Are Not for Smoking.’ On page four of the same magazine I observe a collection of pictures depicting all of the issue’s contributors, and among them is a small black and white photograph of my ex-mailman. Adjacent to his picture is a brief biographical sketch that, among other things, documents his lack of previous literary accomplishment. 

After weeks of frustration I have given up trying to convince certain people that I am the real author of ‘These Pipes Are Not for Smoking.’ My wife too has accepted the futility of the situation, and suggests that rather than harboring any hostility, I should profit from the experience and act more prudently in all my future dealings with postal workers.

Today I received the following letter from Flaming Libidos.

Dear Mr. Darling,

I am pleased to inform you that our editorial staff has decided to publish your recent short story submission entitled Spirochetes in the Springtime. As per the standard policy of our magazine, you will be paid $500 for the manuscript. I would appreciate it if you would contact me immediately (please feel free to call collect) in order that we might expedite the details of this publication. Thank you.



Merril T. Carlson
Flaming Libidos 

This afternoon Trevor came once again to spray our basement and before he left I handed him a check for $75. This was to reimburse him for the revisions he did on the Infatuations of an Amnesiac Misanthrope. I am proud to say that this particular manuscript, which his son returned to me last month, has already been accepted for publication in Viewpoints.

This man Trevor never says much to me. Sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile his taciturn disposition with his obvious editorial skills. Yet in spite of the fact the two of us seem to lack a real rapport, I am more than satisfied with his work, and hope that the money I give him during each of our encounters will be sufficient to sustain his interest in my work. I have already paid the man a total of $385. This amount represents ten percent of my total sales to date.

Oh yes, before he left today I gave Trevor a copy of ‘Afflictions of the Tropics and their Affinity to Sin, Desire and Natural Curiosity.’ I believe it to be a good story, yet for some reason unbeknownst to me it always seems to have engendered the most negative of feelings among editors. Perhaps he will be able to identify the problem.








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