It happens that while I'm reading Ernesto Barbieri's blog Letters of Rejection — an annotated anthology of the horror-fiction writer's correspondence with various literary editors — I receive a rejection letter myself. Only it's an automated email from an online publication that makes the ones Barbieri scans onto his site appear quaint, archaic or, as he says, "relics of a bygone era."
"They're becoming extinct. There are probably not going to be any rejection letters in five years," Barbieri — pen-name Martin Slag — tells me at South Side's Big Dog Coffee, some blocks from The Beehive, where he works as a barista. He's been hoarding these personal curiosities for seven years. "I have into the thousands. There's never any shortage of rejection."
Philadelphia native Barbieri, 32, settled in Pittsburgh six years ago. He'd spent his 20s drifting through writerly waters — the Bay Area, Cape Cod — and soaking up writerly afflictions: alcoholism, depression and self-doubt. He began lettersofrejection.wordpress.com on the advice of his psychiatrist.
Now a qualified nurse and signed to a literary agent, Barbieri is positioned to reflect. Twice weekly he uses a past rejection letter as a springboard to blog about writing, failure or the letter itself. While he finds the blog therapeutic, he's somewhat perturbed by reader responses. "People say, ‘Oh my god, it's really funny.' It's not supposed to be funny!" he says. "The first few posts were very serious personal essays about alcoholism and things I was going through with my girlfriend."
But those readers — Barbieri says he's had as many as 200 page views in a single day — are right. Like his letters, Barbieri himself is something of a relic. He's a blogger who still dreams of traditional routes to publication — from small literary journals to a big New York press. The paradox creates, if not a comic figure, certainly a comic voice.
In person he is entirely in earnest. "I truly believe that writing is what I was put here to do." he says. But his blog is tongue-in-cheek and bracingly cynical. After praising the fine paper quality of a letter from Esquire, he reveals that "good work tho not right for us" is scrawled in ink across it.
The reading culture is rejecting him, the letters are rejecting him, and at the same time the form of the letter of rejection is rejecting itself. This Möbius Strip of rejection renders Barbieri's candid and articulate blog also profoundly funny.