The best, of course, is the personalized note--the handwritten scrawl across the bottom of the form letter or, if you're really lucky, a personal typed letter. These fall into two categories: one, an explanation for why the story wasn't accepted; two, an apology for not taking the story even though the editor really, really liked it. Of the two, the first, believe it or not, is best. As my brother Eugene says, regarding the second, "My ego thanks you, but I'd rather be paid." Still, both are way up there. The first time I got a personalized note from an editor, I was as happy as if I'd got an acceptance. It was a fairly prestigious magazine (for me), and I floated around on Cloud 9 for days.
The second best, which I didn't used to like, is the form letter with boxes. The editor(s) check the boxes that apply: Not Enough Description; Boring; Not For This Magazine. I've learned to appreciate feedback, although I know it isn't always possible; besides, I always like to make sure the Totally Horrible Writing box isn't checked.
The next is the ordinary form letter. I mention this because, in comparison to the last, I don't mind it as much.
The personalized form letter: now, most form letters say something like, "We're sorry we can't use your story. Try us again. We apologize for this form letter," and that's fine, but I get a bit ruffled when the form letter says something like, "We read your story, Katherine, and although we enjoyed TITLE OF STORY, we won't be using it this time around." The first time I got one of those, I thought it was a personal note. Yes, okay, call me naive. After I received the third one, I realized that it was a form level with a clever assistant. (Merge is an amazing feature.) They really annoy me. I'd rather just have the editor say, "You're a cog in our machine," then pretend they know me, like sales people who want to buddy up to you on the phone. Just tell me about your product. If you can't tell me about your product in ten seconds, if you're just going to ask me how I'm doing, forget it.
The final type of rejection letter is a personal rejection letter; however, this kind of personal rejection letter is different from the types mentioned above. At this point, I have to digress and talk about literary criticism. I believe one of the most important jobs of literary criticism is figuring out what the author intended to do. That intent then becomes the standard by which the piece is judged. In other words, it is foolish (if interesting in a bizarre way) to criticize Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for not involving aliens and spaceships or successfully describing submarine warfare or pronouncing judgment on class warfare. (Where's the feminist message?!) Not only should critics look for the author's intent, they should also look at the author's work as a whole. This means that it is also pointless to criticize Tolstoy for killing off Anna Karenina (spoiler, I know, but really, you ought to know that) or Kafka for turning his protagonist into a cockroach, rather than a snake.
In other words, literary criticism should never be about what the critic thinks the story ought to have been about. It should be about whether the author succeeded at what he or she was attempting to do.
To return--the personal rejection letter that I don't care for is the personal rejection letter which isn't about my story as a whole and whether it succeeded or not or, even, where it was flawed; rather the personal rejection letter I dislike is the one which wants to take issue with me for calling a character Bob intead of Billy, or for employing a certain theme, or for delivering a particular outcome. If you don't like it, says I, don't buy it.
This isn't to say that I'm opposed to the magazine editor saying, "Well, really, you know, we prefer happy endings" or "Well, really, you know, we prefer sad endings where everyone dies and life is hopeless and there's angst dripping from the ceilings." That's fair. Magazines have certain audiences and certain self-perceptions. But there's a difference between saying, "We prefer angsty endings, and you don't have one" and saying, "You ought to change the pleasant hero into a Bryonic sociopath. That will make it so much better."
This final type of personal rejection letter inevitably involves blatantly condescending sentences. I have received brutal rejections of stories, but none of them are as bad as the condescending rejection letter which smugly informs me that I'm a good little writer in my way and here's some suggestions (which would completely alter the theme and plot of my piece) which will make me so much better. In many cases, the critic completely misses my real failures as a writer--namely, slow beginnings, a dearth of description and a failure to close the story down--and instead mistakes my plot choices as good or bad writing. (Like critics who mistake the appearance of magic in a story as bad writing, simply because they don't care for all that fantasy genre stuff.)
But then, I will say, that I think good critics--who can put themselves in your shoes and try to look at what you are attempting to do from the inside--are hard to find. It truly is a skill, like writing or sculpting or whatever.
In any case, I never, never complain. (To the editors, I mean.) I'm a poor artist, but I don't consider myself especially beleagured. I don't think the world is against me--if only the publishing world knew it, they are missing out on the NEXT BEST THING since Rowlings (or, in my case, C.J. Cherryh). I'm more literary than Rowlings, but I don't think I could pull off her sense of immediacy. And I know I'm not a better writer than Cherryh. Eh, if it happens, it happens. There's always someone out there looking for fame and fortune. It might be me this round. It might not.