By STEPHEN WADE.
First in a series.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY is, from one perspective, a place where the media constantly generate the notion of support for the individual. Big Brother and his mechanisms of information ensure that any conceivable problem will be remedied by some kind of support system. You have one leg shorter than the other? No problem: The Shorter Leg Society, funded by bungee-jumps and back-waxing afternoons in the coffee shop, will offer support. You have a tendency to nod and agree too much when interviewed? No problem: the Affirmative Repetition Syndrome Network will provide sessions in which you are taught to stop nodding and to say ‘yes’ only when really necessary.
Authors too, have need of support. This is because they know rejection like they know a difficult lover; they want success and the Beloved rebuffs and dismisses them. All they ask for is a smile and a nod, and the lover to say, ‘I love your work and I’ll publish it immediately.’ The smile does not come. The lonely author has to tread doggedly once again to that little box with the PC in it, and the new blank page, the page waiting for the next failure. But help is at hand.
The massive machinery of modern comfort and reassurance is there and is growing. Every conceivable modern malaise is dealt with in the plots of TV soaps, except arguably, the lot of the rejected author, but that will come. Any day now, Cain Dingle from Emmerdale will try his hand at love poems, have them rejected and then stand on the edge of a cliff wondering whether he can go on.
This is quite a new situation. History shows us that for centuries, authors were pathetic, marginal creatures just one level up from beggars and riff-raff. When they did become reasonably respectable, their professional nomenclature was still nowhere near being acceptable for any alternative occupation for the third son of the wealthy man, following the usual options of the law and the church. Septimus, the seventh son, might perhaps have considered the option, but would not have told papa of the plan.
If Septimus or Octavius failed as an author, Daddy would probably not pay up and publish the 30,000 line epic poem just to launch his progeny on a literary career. No, he would thrash him and find him a junior position in the office of Daniel Drudge, envelope-addresser of Armpit Lane.
WOMEN HAD IT even worse of course. Aphra Behn, one of the very first female authors, (1640-1689) had experience that most writers would give their best advance for, being a spy for Charles II in the Netherlands. But the problem was that she set out as a dramatist, having her first success with The Forced Marriage in 1670: that meant that, as she was working with the theatres, she was no better than a whore. Her path to authorship was not easy; some attacked her as a plagiarist and some were just plain envious of her success. The point is that she had to write, as we all do, alone, accessing her imagination and working hard to please the readers or the audience in the playhouse. If she needed listeners, or even a sorority, it was not there.
Before her time, back under the Tudors, being a writer was as dangerous as attending the wrong church service or saying the wrong thing about the king and his women, or the queen and her lack of progeny. A scribbler could find himself facing the axe or being pressed to death under a board if he wrote the wrong things. Who was there to help poor old Will Shakespeare when he was rejected? He must have been told to go away and improve. It seems likely that after submitting his first ink-stained manuscript, some theatre manager said ‘Go and learn from Kit Marlowe mate… he’s got the golden touch.’ Yes, he had, but look at what happened to him- murdered in a pub in Deptford.
One day — and that day is not so far away — there will be adverts in the tabloids offering help and advice to the rejected author. Cain and his ilk will be able to pick up the mobile and talk to an expert. The conversations will go something like this:
1. Putting You Write with Trudie Tease
Writer: Hello, is that Trudie?
Trudie: Yes sweetie… you saw my ad in the paper?
Writer: Yes… Cry on My Shoulder, Unwanted Poets?
Trudie That’s right. Now, tell me about it dear.
Writer: Well, it’s the twentieth one. I’ve been turned down twenty times. I’m crap.
Trudie: Oh no, my love, no you’re not. What it is, my sweetie, it’s that you’re before
your time, like Jimmy Joyce.
Writer: You helped James Joyce?
Trudie: Oh yes, he wept buckets, down the phone. I had to talk him out of suicide, my love. Now, what didn’t they like? Dodgy rhyming couplets?
Writer: Nothing specific …they hated it all – every one of my eighty-eight sonnets.
Trudie: Is the book called Two Fat Ladies?
Trudie: Never mind… just a joke.
Writer (angry): What? You mean I’m here with a bottle of paracetamol and a crushed ego and you’re cracking jokes? I’ll call someone else… I’ll ring that Sadie on The Hot in the Attic line, they understand there.
Trudie: Ha! I know that Sadie… she’s insincere. Now look, I’m sorry I joked. Please don’t lose your self-belief. You’re a great poet…
Writer: Are you sure?
Trudie: Course. If you want to go any further with me dearie, then go to our website and sign up to our little group- it’s called Many a Slip.
Writer (weeping) thanks Trudie… I’ll talk to you again.
Trudie: Yes, now here’s a kiss for you, all the way from me, here at the end of the line.
Writer: End of the line? Does that apply to me? Trudie? You still there?
2. Chatter on Chatterton, Sweetie—Don’t Top Yourself
Writer: Is that Penny Pert?
Penny: Of course my lovely, now put down the tablets, you don’t need them.
Writer: How did you know?
Penny: See the name of my chat-line? That says it all.
Writer: Sorry…oh, I didn’t notice you were sort of…like Samaritans.
Penny: Yes, we’re named after the tragic young poet…the marvellous boy!
Writer: Well, I’m upset, but not that upset.
Penny: They all say that. Now, what did the nasty publisher say?
Writer: Said I was no good.
Penny: What exactly did he say?
Writer: That I was shit…not in so many words.
Penny: Go on, read it out…you know you want to.
Writer: Okay, I’ve got the letter here… ‘ Dear Mr Proddy, after careful consideration we have decided that although your novel has a smack of realism, the plot is not convincing and the characters leave a lot to be desired. Your mss. lacks emotional velocity and pace. We suggest you take a course in creative writing or consult The Writers and Artists Yearbook…
Penny: Now, sweetest one, that’s not really a total rejection is it?
Writer: ‘Tis….says I’m shit. I sweat blood over that bloody pile of trash…I didn’t sleep for weeks….what’s the point of it all?
Penny: Now… what’s your name by the way?
Writer: Wolfram… Wolfram Weg.
Penny: (trying to stifle a laugh) Oh I see…
Writer: (Slamming phone down) Right…enough. That’s the end…
3. Relieve Yourself
Writer: Hello… say it again will you? Like you did last time..
Prof.: Oh it’s you Harold
Writer: Professor Paulina, say the line, for God’s sake!
Prof: Okay but this is the last time. You have to learn to be independent.
Writer: SAY IT!
Prof: Give me an iambic pentameter, you deviant poet
Writer: Oh, that’s better. I can write now. I feel radical.
Prof: Yes, but it’s not the remedy Harold. You need other people. Writers need to mix, to be well…human.
Writer: Not all of us Prof. I only need you. You fulfil all my yearnings,
Professor… I dream about you, I write sonnets about you… I need your voice like… like….like…
Prof: On shit… the block again. A simile, give me a simile….
Writer: Like a…like a…like a…
Prof: Give me a simile, you deviant poet.
Writer: Like I need fish and chips.
Prof: I’m putting the phone down Harold. Don’t ring again.
YET, IN SPITE OF this rather fanciful opening, I have to switch to realism mode and make it clear that a survey of literary rejection opens up for scrutiny the very heart of the profession. Why? Because, as any writer will admit after a few drinks, there are heaps of unwanted, unfinished, unloved, unsupported, unseen manuscripts somewhere in the office. It is the most constipated profession — the writer holds on to every scrap of writing, usually kept on one of a thousand flowery note-pads bought in Waterstones with a resolution to use it for ‘the masterpiece.’
Not only do we have rejection: we have failure in degrees. There is ordinary, everyday failure and then there is spectacular failure. The latter is art of the very highest order. To fail with style, panache and chutzpah is to achieve something very special.
A spectacular failure leaves an aftermath, a sense of shock or horror. The real specialists in this are those writers who insist on attempting the impossible, the Eddie the Eagles of literature. Examples would be projects such as a 800-page history of Middle Topham in rhyming couplets; a tragedy in five acts, with copious stage directions, on Petronius Agrippa’s youngest son; and perhaps an erotic novel titled Hot Desire, about a sex mechanic called Harry Hot on the loose in Sunderland.
In the first centuries of book production, authors made a notable effort to avoid failure by having long explanatory sub-titles, such as:
Godde’s Grete Gobbets of Griefe
Being an account of sodaine spasms, horrid hede-cracking agues
And famous classical deths all ascribed to that most parlous sinne,
Fornication, as practised by subtile and cankered strumpets in
The citie of Londonne, to the eternal shame of gode-thinking folk.
Written by Pastor Wrestling Whitebones,
Sometime preacher to the Kynge of Spayne
A clear example of spectacular failure is the work of John Armstrong (1709-1779) who insisted on producing a poem entitled ‘The Art of Preserving Health’, which delights in describing the human gut, but some of his lines, although encased in infinite tedium, hit home to today’s world, as in these words from ‘Advice to the Stout’:
The irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o’erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutriment imbibes…’
It takes class to create such a revoltingly wrong piece of work. Most writers have some vague notion of what subjects are likely to cause rejection and down-hearted dejection. But a few great souls have dared to go where none have gone before in this. Fortunately, many of the best worst writers have only ever seen their work on gravestones. Such a one was Cornelius Whur, who is responsible for this:
He resteth where the nettles spring,
Not having aid from thee’
Equally, the work of Anonymous cries out for evaluation as failure, as in:
Earth from afar had heard Thy fame,
And worms have learnt to lisp Thy name.’
In fact, the one notable omission from my thematic history is Anonymous. He/she has perpetrated a whole canon of failures which cannot be included in my history. But one notable exception has to be made. These lines are the very definition of spectacular failure:
O never, never she’ll forget
The happy, happy day
When in the church, before God’s priest,
She gave herself away.’
We poor souls languishing in the dungeons of rejection have to cling on to that hope that one day soon, the help-lines will open for us. Then Anonymous will have his/her day.
HISTORY ALSO SHOWS that failure steals up on the writer, unsuspected. The usual scenario is that the hapless hack has a wonderful idea, something that will be the magnum opus. The time seems right, the writing appears to be excellent, your friends say your work is marvellous, and there is no thought of the work being rejected. Then it comes when least expected, a slim letter hidden in a tranche of mail on the mat, nestling between a flyer for the new pizza take-away and a tax demand.
As time pressed on and publishing became established as a money-making notion, writers became a nuisance. Basically, there were too many of them. Most failed scribblers could be picked out in society by their flat noses, caused by the door slamming them against the wall as they loitered outside a patron’s door. With literary failure came its trappings and side-effects: most affected areas of the body were the bottom (‘writers’ bottom’ entered the medical vocabulary in the nineteenth century); the pen-pusher’s palsy (affecting the cheek, which twitches after too much false smiling at agents) and most deadly of all, depression of course, brought on by rejection, and known as the ‘sighing sickness.’ This was caused by too much automatic sighing through boredom and misery.
But, as the following chapters will show, the help-lines were always going to come. Before they existed there was simply the shrink:
Scene: the sofa in Dr Mendham’s therapy centre
Writer: So I wake up and the letter gradually dissolves, but it comes back during
Day… I can’t concentrate for the damned thing…
Shrink: Is there a heading? I mean, which company is it from?
Writer: Some long name….. They write that ‘though my work shows promise,
there are too many novels dealing with bestiality around at the moment…
Shrink: Bestiality? Could you explain please, Harold?
Writer: Well, my book… it’s about two buffalo… back in the time of Custer’s
Shrink: I’m not clear what…
Writer: Well that’s the point… these are the last two buffalo left on the
plains… in the whole world. Hence the title.
Shrink: Which is?
Writer: Custer’s Last Stand. Custer is the male buffalo you see…..
Shrick: What? That’s disgusting. You write about the sexual congress of
Writer: Somebody has to Doc. Don’t they?
Stephen Wade is a writer and historian. His latest books are The Justice Women (Pen and Sword), which is a history of women in all areas of the law, and No More Soldiering (Amberley), which looks at the conscientious objectors of the Great War. He has previously written for the Fortnightly on the subject of George Grossmith: see ‘Entertaining Mr Pooter‘.