One almost gets the feelings that editors throughout the ages will curse the name of Asimov for his descriptions of his relationship with John W. Campbell.
One wonders what submission rates were like, back then . . . but the ability to have time, and energy, to basically "grow" your own stable of authors, in the hey-day, isn't necessary anymore, perhaps. There's no lack of talent, or quality. The pool is simply too big, now.
Also, most editors today are just volunteers who are running their magazines from the settlement money received from slipping on a spilled pickle at the grocery store, and wouldn't even know how to grow an author.
You can't just water them? :p
A form rejection tells you one important thing: that your story was not good enough for anything more than a form rejection.
Yes, quite why writers should expect editors to give free critiques is not entirely clear. Fellow writers can and do give such crits, because both writer and critiquer can benefit from the exercise. It is hard to see in what way there would be any benefit for an editor in providing critiques for all writers (especially given that such critiques are often seen - errneously - by the writer as a willingness to enter dialogue, such dialogue usually heading towards the "but you're wrong about my story" territory.
There are editors who provide detailed critiques (or at least helpful ones) as and when they have time - Nick Mamatas used to for Clarkesworld, Scott Andrews does it at BCS - and I have nothing but respect for those guys (both those quoted examples are of peple who have a very good insight into what they want from their stories, and can explain clearly why your story may not work). But I would never expect nor ask for a crit from any editor.
"A form rejection tells you one important thing: that your story was not good enough for anything more than a form rejection."
Not necessarily. I also used them if I was tired, or if I didn't think I had anything useful to say, or if the author was known for tantrums, or if someone else had recently had a tantrum and I wasn't up for it just then, or if I needed to go through a lot of slush very quickly.
I'm sure those things are true of some other editors some of the time, too.
I mean, it's not a bad general rule, but not necessarily true for every specific.
While I've always understood and sympathized with the need to issue form rejections, having been on both sides of the slush pile in my day, I can't help but also sympathize with the writers who'd like at least -some- indication of -why- they were rejected.
Form rejections have always frustrated me, because I'm not sure what to take away from the experience, or where I fell short on this story with this editor at this moment. I've seen stories rejected because they didn't grab the reader on the first sentence, others where the last sentence was the culprit. I've seen some rejected because of characterization (Oh, MZB, your scathing comments live with me still...) and others for punctuation. Some because the editor hates telepathic unicorns, others because the editor has too many telepathic unicorns lined up already.
When the rejection is as simple as "This didn't work for me, thanks," it's hard to see what went wrong, so I'm always thankful when an editor takes a moment to clarify -why- I wasn't good enough.
Of course, multiply 500 rejections by that minute, and you end up with an extra work day a month, or worse. I wish there was a way to balance this out, between the overload for the editor and the lack of information for the writer.
I suppose the real trick is to read the stuff the editor -does- publish, and try to learn from that. That, however, is not as easy as it sounds.
Mostly, I'm just thinking out loud. I both agree, and disagree, with what you say, but every solution I can think of is flawed.
I think the best approach, as you pointed out, is to read what the magazine has published before, and in this day and age where a lot of magazines are online, this isn't that difficult. There is an answer, however, if an author wants to know why his or her story didn't work, and it's a writing workshop, or a mentor, or . . . or . . . or . . . there's lots of solutions, inherent there. But submitting to a magazine whose job is to deliver entertainment to the masses, no, there is no expectation of anything more than "yes" or "no," I think.
I was raised in the "if you get a personal rejection, it probably means they love your work enough to take a few precious minutes to give you feedback" school of thought. As a result I'm ecstatic when I get them. No one has the right to expect them. Not even if the editor is best friend. Period.
Good, good advice.
If I were an editor I would tear my hair out. I'd be bald.
When I was an assistant fiction editor for an online journal, I took pity on a woman who had submitted a first person POV kidnapping story. I tried to explain to her that while her protagonist was locked in the trunk of a car, she couldn't possibly know what her husband was doing in his apartment at that very same moment.
It turned into the longest exchanges of emails and waste of mental energy I have ever experienced. Vive la Form Rejections!
Oh hell. The mechanism leading to form rejections is (ought to be) well understood, not complained about and appreciated for what they represent.
But they still suck.
I think in some ways form letters do newbie writers a favour.
New writers tend to overthink their writing and focus on every word of a rejection's comments like the letter to a jilted lover.
Form letter says "Nope. Now pick up, and move on."