A long, long time ago, before Twitter or Facebook or even the Y2K Bug, a literary website called Eyeshot came into the world. The year was 1999. The editor of the site, 20-something writer Lee Klein, lived in Brooklyn.
To get things going, Klein wrote the site’s first few stories under pseudonyms. But within a few years, guided by Klein’s particular tastes, the site regularly featured the likes of Zadie Smith, Daniel Alarcon, Tao Lin and Randa Jarrar. Most established literary outlets had little presence online at the dawn of Internet lit, but upstarts like Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz,and others offered fiction, humor and nonfiction. Writers visited these sites daily to see who got published, as they worked on their own stories for consideration.
I found Eyeshot while living in suburban Atlanta in 2002. I submitted something, and not only did Klein email back right away, he accepted the piece. Even better, his enthusiastic response to the submission filled me with helium.
So I submitted more. Then something else happened: Rejection.
I didn’t just get the cold, two-line, de rigueur dismissal of the literary industry. No form letter here. From Eyeshot, you received a (very) personal email from Klein, just an hour or two after submission of the piece. The email often started off by asking what the hell you were thinking.
Once your vision cleared and you took in the rest of the email, you found that Klein had actually read every sentence in your rejected story. He offered feedback on where things went wrong for him. He’d tack on something about his activities there in Brooklyn. And then he would sign off with a polite thanks, an apology and a request for more submissions.
If you want to be a published writer, and especially if you live in suburbia, you need someone to tell you the Truth about your work. Klein offered this, free of charge. His brusque honesty hooked me. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I pictured a shorter, wider version of Joey Ramone sitting on the other side of the computer screen, a punk encircled by books and empty coffee cups, cigarette dangling from his lips, voice husky with the weight of his smoky critiques. (Note: He doesn’t look like a hefty Joey Ramone.)
I had no idea at the time if Klein sent bespoke rejections to everyone or just the “lucky” ones. The answer became obvious when Klein started posting collections of his rejections on Eyeshot. These tiny, tight bursts of writing hummed with energy that hopscotched among comical, cruel, warm, demented, high level and nitpicky. Send him a piece of your soul on Microsoft Word, Klein seemed to believe, and you deserved a piece of his soul right back. An amazing little act of generosity, considering the number of terrible pieces of writing out there. (Klein estimates that he has tapped out more than a thousand original rejections.)
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Klein will publish a novel later this summer, The Shimmering Go-Between (Atticus Books). As a precursor, Barrelhouse Books presents Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, a 214-page collection of Klein’s best blow-offs, turndowns and tender slaps. A quick read—one email per page—it’ll make the reader cringe, LOL and furrow eyebrows. It contains handsome writing, as well as goofy email prose. And the central character—Klein himself—plays a delightfully erratic, blustery, supportive and hysterical critic to the army of wannabe writers filling up email boxes everywhere.
“Learn to spell FELLATIO!” he implores in one rejection. “I’m not going to post this because it’s not funny at all.”
“You brought blood to my brain,” he confronts in another. “Meet me at 9 pm for a duel of chicken bones and hot sauce, somewhere near the L train—at the KFC at 14th and 3rd. I will show you rude and crude. I will teach you the meaning of removed. I will show you what happens when eager talent is misdirected.”
Klein intones to another eager writer, “Excuse me for sounding like that senator debating Dan Quayle, but I know Joyce very well, and you are no James Joyce.”
At first blush, this concept—publishing rejections that broke the hearts of (anonymous) writers—might seem cruel. Maybe. But we all know that writing is difficult. Writers need candid feedback. If an editor possesses little time or energy to respond properly to poor writing, fine. But let us celebrate the editors who speak up.
In this game of writing, no one returns a service like Klein. Like a good sport, he also compliments a splendid shot.
“I like the way you write,” he says.
“I admire and support highly detailed writing,” he says.
“Your story’s first paragraph is good, and so is your language, the rhythm, and aerodynamics,” he says.
He also uses “maybe” a lot and Ye Olde Trick of placing a question mark at the end of a frank statement to lightly mute his howl. Sometimes he merely asks questions.
“How do you want them to respond to your stuff?” he poses to one writer. “How do you want to move and manipulate them, make their minds go mmm?”
The reader will find solid counsel in the pages. Bonus entertainment value springs from Klein’s description of his hangovers, his penchant for autoerotic discourse, his flirtations with certain submitters and his hopeless battle to stop writers from submitting stories involving dentists. He often seems at his wit’s end.
“I’d like what you sent a little more if it were rapped,” he tells one writer.
“The aura of this one is sort of a freckly yellow,” he explains to another, “which reminds me of bananas, which doesn’t make me want to post it.”
“There were no alligators in it,” he offers yet another. “Maybe if you exchanged the hail for alligators and the CEO for a baseball bat, we’d have something, but as it is, with neither alligator nor baseball bat, we cannot offer acceptance.”
Sometimes, Klein rants randomly, with the occasional typo.
“Suicide’s a downer, isn’t? It used to be, is it still? Do you know why everyone’s sending stuff on suicide? What the hell? People must be trying to kill other people off?”
When he leaves behind the business of rejections and opens a window into his life, Klein the editor transforms into what he longs to find—a talented writer with a warped sensibility.
“I just moved to Iowa City,” he writes in one rejection. “Cats have been hunting down the bunnies the last few days. The thing we’ve learned is that bunnies make noises, a crazy distress signal, like five high ‘ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt’ blasts and then are silent and all nose sniffing. Who knew? Turns out rabbits aren’t on those circular animal noise maker things kids have for good reason! Cow goes moo moo, lamb goes bah bah, bird goes tweet tweet, bunny goes crazy fucking murderous high-alert alarm freakout.”
In another email, we breathe a whiff of Brooklyn and its fleeting wonders—before Klein lowers the boom on the submitting writer.
“Late last night I was boundless energy personified, relentless thirst, desire, awareness, alive in an endless city of funny smart pretty eagle-winged adolescents in their late twenties I somehow didn’t hate, but now the world seems reduced to you and me. Listen, if someone accepts any of these, do not trust that source. You’ve got some work to do.”
Back in the early aughts, Klein held a few readings in New York that asked us to reconsider the practice. At an Eyeshot/Klein “reading,” you brought your own book, sat down with others and read silently for one hour. In an era of writer performances every night, in every Brooklyn bar and coffee shop, Klein wanted attendees to appreciate the principal, sacred connection between writer and reader.
In Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, cynics might presume that Klein cares little for his fellow writers if he’s so willing to shred egos. But his aim aligns with those readings and his respect for the writer-reader relationship. He simply wants others to show the same.
“Readerly love is unlike motherly love,” he tells a writer in the collection. “It’s absolutely conditional. Don’t expect readers protected behind computer screens won’t sneer, roll eyes, get bored.”
Let’s hope some of the rejected took Klein’s advice. Eyeshot, a sprawling and chaotic site, still churns 15 years later. Klein, now a married dad living in Philadelphia, publishes regularly. And he shares what he knows—even, at the least, how to handle rejection.
“Do you hate me now?” he writes. “You shouldn’t. I don’t hate you because I didn’t want to post your story. The story exists outside of you. You are not your story. You can take what I say and think about it, or cry, or tell me to piss off. All are acceptable. Or ignore me. Whatever.”
By the end of the collection, readers understand that when Klein says “whatever,” he might not mean it at all.
Jamie Allen is an Atlanta-based writer.