A few weeks ago, Fiction Editor Jon Sealy of the Sycamore Review slipped in this post about the realities of editing a literary journal. Perhaps he was feeling the weight of all the rejection letters he was preparing to send.
There are more good stories floating around than the market can support (which is good news for readers, bad news for writers), so for a good story, it really seems like publication is as much a lottery as anything else, finding the right editor at the right time.
While this all sounds negative, even bleak, there is actually some measure of reassurance to be taken in the understanding that rejection is not equivalent to failure. In fact, it speaks more to the randomness built in to the system than to the quality of our work.
Ultimately the submission process is a poor gauge of quality, not because editors are bad at picking good work, but because good writing is not a zero-sum game. You and I can each have good work end up in the same editor’s “maybe” pile, and the editor may end up rejecting my work and accepting your work for any of a number of factors.