99.9% of the time, when a writer receives some piece of correspondence from a literary journal in her mailbox or inbox, it's a rejection. Of course, what you want is something personalized, with some concrete, albeit arbitrary, reason why they couldn't publish your work. Something like, "It was brilliant, it blew us away, but it was just too long." Hopefully it's polite. Often it's a form letter, with no handwritten response at all. Even these can be valuable. If The Paris Review sits on your story for two months instead of two weeks before rejecting it, you can consider that a minor victory, because somebody from the freaking Paris Review actually moved his or her eyes across your words.
Other times, however, literary journal responses are downright weird, or frustratingly vague. Some of my personal favorites include "Fascinating, original work with compelling, poignant characters, but ultimately not what we were looking for." Okay then. I'll send you my cliched work with hackneyed characters next time. Or "Loved the voice, intrigued by the plot, but just couldn't get excited about it." I think my all-time favorite was one that was simply my cover letter, with the word "Sorry" scrawled across the bottom. I actually felt pity for them! Once there was just a "No." Which I imagined as being more akin to "Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!" A kind of nightmarish rejection written as they dragged themselves away from their desks.
Imagine my surprise when I received an email from Natural Bridge -- the University of Missouri-St. Louis literary journal -- indicating not only that they want to publish my story, "Totenbein," but they found it "masterful" and "entertaining." As if that wasn't wonderful enough (and quite the improvement on "Nooo!") a 14 person editorial jury and writer/editor Inda Schaenen called my story "Nabokovian." As in Vladimir. Consider me wildly undeserving of such praise, but also immensely flattered. (Frankly, I'm amazed they would want to publish a story about a world expert in mummification. Thanks for the chance, Inda!)
It'll be a while before the story's out, but in the meantime, here's the website for Natural Bridge.
While Nabokov rolls in his grave, I hear that Humbert Humbert has responded, calling me "A little long in the tooth, but eminently tappable." ;)