"Kjell Espmark won't say if there are new criteria [for Nobel Literature Prizes]. 'What is important,' he says, 'is changing the criteria so the decision remains unpredictable.'" Stuart Tiffen, DW, Made for Minds.Say what?
It is truly difficult to convey the criteria used for accept/decline decisions, but most literary journals at least try to clarify the type of work they seek.
As do other editors, we suggest reading recent issues of our publication to get a feel for what we publish. In addition, we describe the criteria each year in calls for submission.
I know from submitting my own work that a decline letter almost never meant the piece was not worthwhile. I've had poems declined by one publication and accepted by another. I've had rejections accompanied by a note from an editor who voted to accept but was outvoted by the rest of the editorial team. Now, after several years' experience with Bacopa, I've found almost every submission holds merit. Each choice of one piece over another is based on countless influences, a subtle blend of experience, education, what we've read historically and recently, personal preferences, themes developing in a given year's submissions, and whether we've already accepted something similar.
I accept pieces that capture my attention in the first sentence, inspire me to keep reading to the final period, don't go off on tangents (author sticks with the subject), have clear timelines, trigger emotions (such as empathy, fear, nostalgia), teach but don't preach (the message is conveyed through the story), make me smile, bring tears to my eyes, and/or cause me to continue thinking about the piece long after I've read it.
This is not an easy procedure. I have learned to detach in most cases when declining because it is a hard thing to reject and know from my own experience how that writer might feel. I have had my own pieces accepted with praise when the same piece might have been rejected multiple times by other journals. I have had books accepted by publishing companies after other rejections. We all respond according to our own emotional history. The one thing I have trouble judging is a political or religious piece. This takes detachment and the skill gained from experience. We each have bias, no question. However, I respond to writing with my gut. I either like it or I don't. Above all else, I will accept based on a powerful voice. A great voice will hook me every time.
I try my damnedest to be flexible, both for the authors' sakes and for the sake of the publication, especially when my co-editors express strong opinions one way or another. That said, my criteria are roughly as follows: first and foremost, lively, engaging, fresh, and well-put together language, a relatively accessible or "universal" subject, or at least a perspective that hints at or touches universality or breadth or depth in some sense, even if it is radically individual or subjective. It is important to me that lively language is employed in the service of at least a few of the essential elements of poetry: compression of language (language operating on multiple levels at once via imagery, metaphor, symbolism, etc.), soundplay (rhyme, consonance, assonance, etc.), rhythm/pacing, appearance on the page (use of lineation, white space, stanza breaks, punctuation, etc.). The major criteria are those basics, plus whatever sense of the individual poet's voice I receive from the piece(s) and how that voice strikes my fancy/appeals to my sensitivities and sensibilities.
Take heart in knowing that even famous writers have been turned down at times, most rejections not quite so tongue-in-cheek as publisher Arthur Fifield's letter to Gertrude Stein:
Dear Madam, I am only one, only one, only one. One one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.
Sincerely yours,And this letter from Edward Weeks of The Atlantic in 1949, when Kurt Vonnegut was still unknown, hangs in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis (Slaughter-House Five is rumored to have developed out of one of the rejected samples):
Dear Mr. Vonnegut,In our standard Bacopa decline letter, we address each author by name/title of submitted work, express appreciation for the submission, and write,
We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted for our purpose. Both the account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, "What's a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?" have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance....
"Our editors have given your work careful consideration and decided it's not a fit for this issue. We wish you all the best in placing it elsewhere."We believe this accurately reflects the truth, and we do sincerely wish everyone who receives a decline letter from Bacopa will be successful in placing it elsewhere.