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What’s worse than rejection?

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Essay | 17 minute read
Silent rejection, argues one writer, which becomes a never-ending - and infuriating - act of waiting

I had fantasised about it for a long time. After (mostly) keeping a lid on my rage for years, I would finally go on the offensive. Those who had so blithely ignored me would finally have to account for their actions. The world would know that this was a man who would not submit to their indifference.

My weapon would not be my words. If lack of communication had brought me to this point, it would be through my own excessive communication that I would receive justice. I would break their silence, forcing them to speak.

Sometimes though, a fantasy fulfilled can never be as good as a fantasy anticipated. And my dreams of twisted revenge collapsed into very little. Breaking the silence of the unanswered email was not the cathartic process I had expected.


Silence is not simply an absence of noise. Silence can speak to us, but we don’t always know what it means. Silence can torment us with its multivocal ambiguity, its curiously eloquent vacuity. In seeking to be a published writer, I have sought to speak, to make a noise. More than that: I want someone to hear me: a reader (and yes I know I am mixing metaphors here). Communication isn’t always the same as dialogue though. The reader may or may not want to answer back and even if s/he tries, there is no guarantee that the writer will respond. Conversely, the writer may desire to dialogue with the reader, but the reader (if, indeed, there is one) may remain mute.

Still, to be published is at least to have the possibility of dialogue, to have the privilege of a platform from which to speak that can be used in more or less one-sided ways. The trouble is that there are platforms and then there are platforms. These days, anyone can publish online, but not everyone can publish in a publication with a guaranteed readership.

Sometimes I have been successful in finding a platform. At other times I have found only sphinx-like silence from those who decide whether mine is a voice that should be heard – editors. To be an editor is, more often than not these days, to wield silence, to protect oneself from the clamour of those who seek a voice.

Editors have always had the power to control access to publishing platforms. Today, though, their power and responsibility is greater than ever. In a world of online noise, the desperation to make one’s voice heard can be overpowering. It’s easier than ever to fire off an email submission. And editors – part of a profession that, in some organisations at least, has been hollowed out and given greater and greater responsibility at a far younger age for less money and job security – have to cope somehow with the flood of supplications to be heard.

Too often, editors cope through cultivating a strategic silence. Those who have not submitted work for publication might think that being a writer is a process of acceptance and rejection. Stories of famous writers who succeeded after dozens of rejection letters are common. But this is not a fair representation of publishing today. The rejection letter or email is the exception – it is silence that is the norm. The most common type of rejection is silent rejection.

Silent rejection runs through my life as a writer. I publish a fair bit – books, newspaper articles, magazine features, academic writing and literary essays like this one – and my appetite for getting my work out there is insatiable. I am constantly firing off proposals and completed pieces to editors. Rarely, though, do I ever get an explicit rejection. Even some of the editors for whom I’ve written on many occasions usually reject me silently.

This silence maddens me. I can never be sure whether it actually means rejection or not. There is always a chance that an email was accidentally deleted or overlooked. Silence of this sort is hard to parse; it may be a failure to communicate or a deliberate choice to communicate a message of rejection. My life feels permanently unfinished and incomplete. With the hanging threads of email chains strewn around me, I am left in limbo. My anger festers as I contemplate when and whether I should nag those who do not respond, with all the embarrassment that that entails.


I’m sure that there will be little sympathy for the ‘plight’ of the sometimes-published writer. Even if my writing only brings me a modest proportion of my income, I am still in a better position than some. I don’t doubt that silent rejection is even worse for those writers who have never been published. And in any case, to seek publication is a vainglorious activity, a pretension that needs to be pricked. No one is owed an audience for their pontifications.

Silent rejection, though, is not a phenomenon confined to publishing. It may well be an inevitable side-effect of the ease of online communication and the excessive volume of messages it generates. It is common these days when applying for a job to be warned that unsuccessful applicants will not be notified. My correspondence is full of unreciprocated messages. Even when it’s in the interest of the correspondent to reply, it doesn’t always happen. The accountant I approached to work on my tax return never got back to me, despite two emails and two phone messages. The events manager at the venue holding my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah hasn’t responded to my request to talk to her about hiring a PA system. Maybe they aren’t rejecting me, but it feels as though they are. Adding yet more loose threads to my life is galling.


My torment at silent rejection runs parallel to my sociological appreciation of why it occurs. Actually, scratch that, you don’t need to be a sociologist to imagine the unstoppable torrent of emails that an editor at a major, or even minor, publication receives. The fight for a cleared inbox can never end. There are only so many hours in the day etc. etc. etc.

My empathy has its limits though. I edited a literary magazine for over a year. I too received endless emails (and I was only part-time, working three other jobs). And I did respond, sometimes curtly, but usually swiftly. The anxiety that an unanswered email generates in me means that I felt I had to respond. It may be a failure of imagination on my part, but I simply can’t think myself into the mind of an editor who can blithely ignore emails, day in day out. Still, maybe I was not fit to be an editor. Maybe only the phlegmatic are capable of silent rejection.

Despite attempts to assuage my anger by understanding what editors are going through, I wanted to fight back. I wanted to put those who have silently rejected me on the spot, to embarrass them and force from them… something. I don’t know what I expected, but I needed that great silence to be filled somehow.

I once fantasised about writing a book called ‘A Year of Unanswered Emails’ in which I would track down those who silently rejected me and hear their stories. That was never a practical possibility, but I did at least want to escape my enforced passivity and do something. And I wanted to publish that something. Maybe to get an editor to publish it would be a victory of sorts, although what it would be a victory over I couldn’t imagine.

I started with a literary journal to which I had submitted a proposal for an article. They’d responded positively but after I’d submitted the full draft I heard nothing. The journal has a collective editorship. I tracked down as many of them as I could find online and sent the following email:

Dear editors

I submitted a piece for the [theme] issue of the [name of journal] several months ago. I redrafted it following some useful editorial comments. Since then I heard nothing. I note that the issue is in print and I don’t know if my piece is in it.

Over the last few months I have sent two emails and tweeted you – no response. Given the black hole that is the [name of journal] e-mail address, I’m sending this to as many of you whose emails I can track down as possible. Excuse the quasi-stalking behaviour.

Obviously I am angry. But here’s a more positive response: I am writing an article about those who do not respond to emails. Could I interview one of you over the phone or Skype for this? This is a serious proposal. It will be an awkward conversation, but I think a productive one. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of ‘rejection by non-response’ and am tracking down people to talk to who – like you – have made the decision not to answer emails as a matter of policy. I myself have edited a literary journal, and I find it hard to understand this policy, despite it being ubiquitous. I’m looking for people to help me understand.

Best wishes and looking forward to hearing from you.

Keith

What on earth was I expecting? How would anyone answer that email? I blunted the force of my anger with a superficial politeness and, at the same time, expressed it through passive-aggressive sarcasm. Of course the journal was unlikely to have a policy of not answering emails. Suggesting that they did was a slur.

Given my barely concealed nastiness, the email I received a few days later from one of the editorial team was admirably restrained:

Dear Keith,

Accept my apologies for not being in touch in a more succinct fashion. It is totally our fault that we didn’t communicate with you more directly – again please accept our apologies for that.

I’d happily talk to you about ‘not responding to emails’ while you should know: This is not deliberate but simply due to the fact that all of us editors have proper jobs (mostly academic) to take care of so that one or the other email falls off.

Let me know how I can help.

All best for now.

[Name]

We ended up corresponding for a while. He wasn’t free for an interview but he was happy to answer questions. I didn’t really know what to ask. He confirmed that the editorial board was ‘in the process of setting up a more formalised (and written down) system so that unnecessary and annoying slips like the one you unfortunately had to deal with don’t happen again’. That’s fine, but I didn’t care anymore. The silence had spoken back in the language of human reasonableness. My fantasy hate-figure turned out to be just a busy person.

I already knew why they were silent before I made contact; my questioning them was simply an act of futile rage. But I didn’t humiliate them, I humiliated myself.


The mundane results of that ‘experiment’ meant that I suspended my plans to contact other silent rejecters in a similar fashion (I’d made a long list!). It wasn’t just that I already knew why silent rejection happens, it’s that my responding to silence with scorn disturbed me. There were resonances here of something dark, an abyss I didn’t want to fall into.

When I’ve read reports of stalkers convicted through the courts, there seems to be a repeated pattern: The stalker initially has a cordial relationship with the victim; sometimes a correspondent, sometimes an acquaintance, sometimes a colleague, sometimes a lover. The victim does not want to continue the relationship to the stalker’s satisfaction. Maybe a star does not want to make friends with a fan, a casual acquaintance doesn’t want to become a lover, or a lover wants to end the relationship. The victim restricts communication, the stalker ramps up attempts at contact. Finally, the victim has nothing left to do but to cut off contact, to reject through silence – and that is where stalking becomes obsessive and sometimes violent. The stalker is as maddened by silence as I am.

I don’t want to be a stalker. I’m not a stalker. I am angry, though. And I have form in lashing out at those who are silent.

Earlier this year I was contacted by someone from Jeremy Corbyn’s office. I have written a lot about the antisemitism controversy in the Labour Party and this person wanted to discuss ideas of how to improve the situation. I replied swiftly and enthusiastically. Then there was nothing. Nineteen days later, I published an article on the Jewish Quarterly blog revealing what had (not) happened, which concluded ‘the fight against antisemitism begins with answering your emails’. While the article made a serious point that communication difficulties had played a part in the deterioration in relations between the Jewish community at the Labour Party, I was motivated to write the piece out of spite. The person involved (who I had not named in the piece) contacted me. (S)he was upset and frustrated at what I had done and I don’t blame him/her. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t been in touch again.

Expressing my anger at silent rejectors doesn’t make me feel good about myself, even when there are serious points to be made. It doesn’t make me feel good because it feels like the first stage in the stalking process, even though I have never and will never proceed to further stages. Giving in to my fantasies of breaking the silence has made me take a hard look at myself and question what it was that I wanted to achieve.


In the last few years a new term has entered the lexicon of dating – ‘ghosting’. To ghost someone is to suddenly, without any apparent warning, cut off all contact with a lover and refuse to respond to their attempts to communicate. That isn’t exactly new, but in an information-rich age, where contact is ubiquitous, the shock of non-response to texts, emails, calls, may be all the more devastating.

I’ve been in a relationship since the start of 1999 so I missed out on ghosting. However, in my single days I did experience the anguished waiting for the call that never comes. I dealt with it; I sucked it up without resorting to stalking and abuse. That it has been email correspondence with editors that has threatened to drive me over the edge, where silent rejection from former lovers didn’t, says something about me, although quite what I don’t know.

I do know this, though: Silent rejection, whether in dating or in publishing, can be both an abuse of power and a defence against power. An abusive lover can use ghosting to devastate a partner whom they wish to control. Ghosting is also the last line of self-defence against an abusive lover who knows how to undermine resistance through weasel words. An editor for a national newspaper can make an aspiring writer feel worthless through silent rejection. An editor for a national newspaper can defend themselves against obsessive correspondents by going into silent mode.

And my own experience shows both sides of silent rejection. I am not just a victim, I am a perpetrator too, having resorted to silent rejection myself. Although I am not an editor or a gatekeeper to anything, people do get in touch when I publish articles and books. Sometimes I do not know what to say to them. Sometimes, for all my wordiness, I am struck dumb with embarrassment and incredulity.

For a while now, a correspondent has been sending me long, forensically detailed analyses of antisemitism in the Labour Party. I responded politely the first couple of times. Now, I don’t respond at all. Following the publication of my book on denialism earlier this year, I have been receiving a steady stream of long, closely argued emails explaining that I am wrong and that vaccines cause autism, climate change is not happening, HIV does not cause AIDS and that all manner of theories explain what ‘really’ happened on September 11th 2001. I’ve learned that even a cursory acknowledgement just brings forth more and more emails. Mostly, I ignore them, fully aware of my hypocrisy.

Why is it so hard to reject, to say ‘no’ or that you aren’t interested? There’s a huge irony here: Silent rejection avoids embarrassing confrontation, but it can be a much more hostile act than direct communication.

Then again, maybe silence can be kinder than raising false hopes. Recently, I posted a widely shared Twitter thread on antisemitism. Someone tweeted me to ask if they could discuss the issues via email. I agreed (there’s a contact form on my website but it was nice of him to ask). As soon as he emailed I knew I had made a mistake. His long emails, while far from the green-ink kind, were too involved for me to do justice to. Eventually I had to tell him that I had no time for this, which left him hurt and upset.


When I first began to realise that I was risking burnout and desperately needed some quiet time to myself, I thought of hiring a cottage in a remote area for a few days. While that’s tempting, the silence I would experience alone in the wilderness would be the silence of narcissism. For me at least, to experience the noise of rustling heather as silence would be to put myself at the centre of existence, to see speech as the only noise that counts.

So instead, for my birthday this year, I’ve asked my family to contribute towards me attending a silent retreat. I have no yearning to become a monk, with all that it entails (and Jews don’t do monasticism anyway). I want silence, but a different form of silence. What monastic silence offers, at least in my fantasy, is communal silence. We will choose to be silent, but we will still communicate, making space for each other with our bodies, with our routines, with our prayers (not that I will be doing the latter). This is a silence that doesn’t reject, that isn’t unfathomably opaque.

Even if I do this, I will return, perhaps rested but not fundamentally transformed, to a world of noisy relationships. I will manage the noise through my own strategic silences and, in turn, I will be managed by the silence of others.

We can’t win, can we? Most of us yearn for connection, for others, for relationships and communities. To be silenced, to be received in silence, is to be cast out, to be removed from the comforting noisiness of humanity. And yet, too much noise, too much humanity, too much connection and we have to protect ourselves, wielding silence as a barrier against the threat of otherness.


I knew that I had met my life partner, the woman I was to marry, when I felt comfortable with extended silences between us. In previous relationships I had to fill the void, to chatter, to dazzle with my conversation. Companionable silence, I eventually discovered, is a deep and abiding pleasure. Once, when I saw elderly couples silently eating dinner in a restaurant, I pitied them; now I see my own future and welcome it.

But if silence is to be benign, we have to know what it means. That means encasing it in a convivial structure. My wife and I can enjoy silence – most of the time at least – because we enjoy talking to each other. If silence is all you have other than the occasional bit of small talk, then it can become pregnant with unspoken meaning.

I could accept the silence of editors, accountants and Bat Mitzvah planners if its meaning was clear. If a publication had an explicit policy of telling all those who submit that non-response means rejection after a certain time limit (and a few do) then I could shrug and move on. A woman I dated briefly in my twenties told me from the off that ‘I don’t play games.’ That meant, when she went dark for a few days, I knew that it didn’t mean rejection.

We need containers for our silence in order to make them less terrifyingly ambiguous. It almost doesn’t matter what silence means, provided we can interpret that meaning. I am (probably) not going to pester any more of my silent rejecters, but I’m not going to give up the hope that, someday, they will confirm that they really were rejecting me.

Keith Kahn-Harris’s latest book is ‘Denial: The Unspeakable Truth’ published by Notting Hill Editions (£15)