By STEPHEN WADE.
Second in a series.
I BEGIN WITH a statement of my own failure. I am in the fairly unusual position of having had experience of setbacks and duds in a rich variety of genres and forms. The reason for this is that I have had four phases in my writing career, and there has been a distinct mix of flops and false starts in each one:
Phase One: Poet
FAILURE HERE WAS in the extreme form, which is to say, a rejection slip tended to trigger a sequence of deep sulks, followed by kicks on inanimate objects and imbibing too much cherry brandy (I had no money so I accessed my mother’s drinks cabinet). At this stage, I was not aware of Alexander Pope’s guidance regarding bad poetry. He explained that getting poetry out of the system was a handy prelude to trying proper writing: ‘It may be affirmed with great truth, that there is hardly any human creature past childhood, but at one time or another has had some Poetical Evacuation, and no question was much the better for it in his health…’
Phase two: Hack Essayist
HAVING ATTRACTED INTEREST from Faber and Faber but then been rejected by them, I switched to pontificating on poetry and writers generally. At this stage I was an insufferable bore, a poetaster who behaved like a Professor. Rejections were more wordy, but still lethal. Result: rants and red-faced loathing of all periodicals who refused my work.
Phase three: True Crime Writer
FATE AND CIRCUMSTANCES led me into the role of crime enthusiast. That is, I developed and unhealthy interest in bloody murder from years long gone. I actually did very well in this, but found that, when I acquired an agent, all the ideas for stories I was burning to tell met with rebuffs from large publishers. Reason: there were too many other writers doing the same thing.
Phase Four: Magazine Contributor
AT SOME POINT I wandered into writing for history and regional magazines. At first I seemed to attract a few acceptances in between the rejections, but then all the doors closed against me.
TODAY, THOUGH I exist as a general non-fiction writer: my most detailed specialist subject, should I ever be called to appear on University Challenge, is literary failure. Hence this series. Rejection is many things, if we search for images to explain it: like being hit by an iced-water spout; being slapped in the face by a wet haddock; being pole-axed by a thump to the midriff; being told to get off the pitch and have an early bath.
At the very heart of the experience, the really dark, destructive experience is that one feels excluded from a nice, cosy, chummy club. One sees them being interviewed for the Hay Festival, these professional writers, sitting on sofas looking cultured and confident; they appear on TV when it’s Valentine’s Day or World Book Day, and one has this feeling that they all go away, back to a life of chatting about their chapter four in a London coffee-shop. They put in an hour or so in the office and then start tweeting and blogging and they have a following of thousands, groupies who want to collect their spittle and their sweat. Sometimes they have to sit in a bookshop and sign their name on a book that they have written, and people queue to gaze on them and ask for the book to be signed to ‘Cathy’ rather than ‘Catherine’ so that they can say they are bessie mates with the author.
But the rejected author is not good enough for this media world. The rejection letter shuts them out in the cold, condemning them to another year’s hard labour at the screen, sitting at the kitchen table on a Sunday night, before they have to be up and away to do their 9-5 job the next morning.
The rejected author is not an author. When asked by friends how one’s book is coming on, one has to try to smile and say that the publisher didn’t want it. Excuses have to be found, such as, ‘It wasn’t right for their lists’ or ‘The theme is unfashionable now’ and one has to say this because otherwise one would lose face and then not be described as ‘a writer’ any more when introduced. In my younger days, I was sometimes referred to, at parties, as ‘Steve, who’s a teacher but he’s a poet as well…’ The following conversation would always be about the poetry, not the teaching.
My confession is that, earlier in my writing career, I burned with envy at those writers glorying in their fame, being loved and treasured by their readers, media darlings, members of the glitterati, speakers and storytellers — while my stories lay untold, in the dark oblivion of my desk drawer.
Today things are very different. I have no envy, no rankling hatred and no brooding implosion of depression brought on by rejection. Rejections today flip over me like bats at dusk. I only weep when alone. Otherwise, the brave face is well practised and appears very easily and smoothly.
We seasoned scribblers gradually learn that the path to being a real writer is littered with rejection slips. It’s rather like a boxer, having to learn the trade by sparring. The only difference is that we rarely have a chance of landing an uppercut on the jaw of the bastard who rejected the novel. I mean that in a nice way, just as they mean their rejections in a nice way too.
One tiny benefit remains to explain: it can be useful. That is, being rejected provides a talking point. There’s always lots of support, plenty of comforting things said… women feel sympathy for you. Though, as a chat-up line it has its limits:
‘Hi… I’m Steve.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Oh really? What have you written?’
‘Er… nothing. I’ve been rejected.’
If no sympathetic noises follow, one might say, ‘But I’ve been rejected by Faber and Faber!’ Not many can say that, you add.
EVERYONE YOU MEET in the world of writing and publishing seems to have a story about J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book being rejected. The internet has a massive amount of material relating to literary rejection, and when the Writers’ Relief site set about listing some classic rejection statements they included one for Rudyard Kipling: ‘I’m sorry. Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language’ and a note sent to Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest poets: ‘ Your poems are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.’ The WR listings provoked a huge response of over twenty pages of comment for writers, many seemingly convinced that it was all about taste anyway, and that a lot of writing in print was very poor. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but when the lone writer receives the rebuff then it really hurts. A rejection is more than a blow to self-esteem and one’s talents: it slaps down your sense of self.
Coping with rejection is now almost a science. It even provokes writers to coin their own technical terms, as in Mindy Klasky’s notion of ‘rejectomancy’ which is, roughly, the skills involved in divining exactly what is meant by the wording of a rejection letter. Klasky analyses such phrases as ‘Didn’t grab me’, ‘Didn’t hold me’ and ‘Didn’t work for me.’ She quite rightly surmises that there are clues in the coded expression of such formulaic phrases.
CHANGING REJECTION SCENARIOS.
THROUGH ALL THE years in which writers have submitted manuscripts for consideration, there has been the agony of waiting for a response, followed by the terror of the rejection, leading to the sheer evil hatred set against those who appear to have success on a plate. The failed writer has a tranche of excuses: she has influential friends; she sucks up to everyone; she’s got there by the casting-couch; she looks great and I need air-brushing… and on and on. We writers refuse to accept that we might not be up to scratch, but then, some of the classic greats were not either.
I like to think that a note, accompanied by a bulky package of manuscript, dropped into a certain letter-box:
Dear Mr Joyce,
We thank you for your manuscript of your work, Finnegan’s Wake.
Unfortunately, this does not fit easily with our current lists. It is hard to
envisage how we could possibly brand your writer’s identity based on this,
although your title does hint possibly at a mariner’s yarn and could be
placed alongside the novels of Captain Marryat and Joseph Conrad. Our
suggestion is, most importantly, that you pay attention to checking your
grammar and punctuation before submitting this elsewhere…
This, as all scribblers will know, is a letter of rejection. It is part of the learning process of those who dedicate their lives to the written word. The phrases at the opening of such brief notes are familiar to all those who feel the anguish of rejection. Here are a few opening gambits from those in power:
We regret that we cannot….
Unfortunately, this is not for us…
Your work has merit but….
The coffee stain on p.5 was off-putting…
We suggest that you try a publisher interested in German Shepherds…
The market for this genre is difficult at the moment…
We all enjoyed reading this but….
Your manuscript entertained everyone in the office….
Do not be discouraged but….
Have you ever thought of voluntary work….
Perhaps ten years from now attitudes may change…
This was far too long….
You have difficulty with pace….
Our reader wilted at page 3003….
Or, those gentle reviewers of writing may also crush and discourage the aspiring writer, as when William Wordsworth was told, on the publication of his magnum opus, The Excursion: ‘This will never do….’
I HAVE LIVED with rejection for almost forty years. I started my career writing sonnets about tulips and have progressed to producing biographies of obscure people from dusty old years gone by. But I sat down recently, taking stock of this long career of being rebuffed, and felt assured that my experience would help others, those new to the word trade perhaps. This series is my shadow autobiography, the story of the poet in me who never made it but stirred up some reactions in dark corners and forgotten by-ways of literature.
The scenario is familiar, that little narrative of rejection: phase one is the sense of impending doom when one realises that a bulky envelope has crashed onto the doormat; then phase two is the little voice inside saying it may be an acceptance but with editing needed. Phase three follows: the placing of the envelope on the kitchen table and the mug of coffee placed near to hand. Finally, if there is another person near, you will ask them to open it, and they do, their face dropping and your own false smile sinking into a droopy expression of misery.
I have wept over manuscripts; I have trodden on them and wailed like a Cheyenne at a rain-dance; I have ripped them up with curses; I have held them with shaking grip and vowed never to write again; I have ranted like some head-case at anyone nearby about how I am misunderstood. I have even reminded myself, regularly, that Will Shakespeare had rejections. I mean, in his later plays, they had to wheel in John Fletcher, winkling him out of the pub corner, to write the sex scenes after Will had been hit by depression sometime around 1602.
In the days before computers and the internet, there may have been the weighty package dropping onto the mat, but today there may simply be one line, such as, ‘Not for us.’ Working as a freelance from home, writers become accustomed to curt rejections on e-mails, generally couched in diplomatic or bland terms. But even such brief responses are still horrendously damaging. Isaac Asimov called rejection slips ‘lacerations of the soul’ and he received them by post; today, we maybe want to agree with Neil Gaiman that ‘When they tell you what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ But the deeply depressing problem is that they may be right, and that means seeing faults in your little darlings who have been sent forth into the cruel world of publishing.
‘REJECTION’ — THE FACT is that it is too strong a word. We need others to apply. I suggest ‘possible postponement’ or ‘partial decision’ or ‘reluctant rebuttal’. What about ‘suggested tactical readjustment’?
No, we must man- or woman-up and apply some muscular Christianity here. They were the guys who could handle pressure and being rebuffed. Yes, those Victorian muscular bible types could be told to buzz off by the Ashantis and the Zulu, told to take their speeches elsewhere, brand themselves with pokers on the bum, and what did they do? They wrote another speech and came back, ready to tell the benighted peoples of the Dark Continent that their writing and speechifying was top notch and boy they should read their latest tome entitled, Selected Homilies for the Infidel or Little Bible Tales for Heathen Masses.
So, with all this in mind, on we go, into the by-ways of my social history as a shunned author, and through the history of literary rejection as well, but I have a message for all who have the obsession to write and publish — keep at it.
Of course, being rejected may be a blessing in disguise to writers; after all, being told by those in power that one’s expertise may lie elsewhere is potentially good career advice. Not, one has to say, if the advice is to leave off writing entirely and the poor scribbler in question is a delicate soul. In many cases, the rebuff has led to new directions being adopted, and so the advice is sound and indeed, is a pointer to the writer’s real strengths.
Yet, stories in the histories of writers’ lives concerning the unpredictable consequences of failure, pack the story of literature from the very beginning. Urg, the caveman poet, must surely have scratched his pictorial account of the dinosaur hunt on the wall of his home, only to be greeted with a chorus of boos from the tribe and a general agreement that it wasn’t like that at all, and it wasn’t even Durg who killed the beast.
THERE ARE INSTANCES of rejection and its following dejection, being part of the future career which becomes hugely successful, as in the case of Isaac Asimov. In his case, rejection was never actually expressed; his first ever science fiction submission was merely lost to oblivion. No reply came his way. Was he dejected? Not at all. His career biography contains the startling fact that he produced, across many genres, over 600 titles.
Silence is arguably the ultimate rejection: what could be worse for the struggling aspiring writer than a response to a submission which is nothing more than an enormous silence, a meaningful gap of time, with no response? Then the inevitable realisation by the writer that the work in question has been ignored, perhaps lost in a slush pile the size of Blackpool Tower, and that the destiny of the magnum opus is sheer oblivion. Worse, the feeling creates a shiver of fear: that in fact, the writing is so execrable that no verbal response is possible and that the editor has chosen to remain silent, and if pressed, to regret that ‘the work never reached us here.’
Many writers will be familiar with the task of having to pen the ‘reminder note’ to the editor or publisher. It is a very difficult document to produce, requiring tact and control of the simmering anger beneath the query. This is the result of that conviction of extreme Angst, of internal turmoil and despair on the part of the poor writer, reduced to a sad little message something like this:
Six months ago I sent you the ms. of my novel, Dangerous Denis,
a novel of the Napoleonic Wars (it’s the French version of Denis by the way).
As yet, I have received no reply, and I am anxious to know whether or not you
actually received the package containing my work. Could you please check
that you have it and let me know that, should you have read it, you may have
reached a decision as to its suitability for publication?
Note the tone of quiet anxiety here, the wish not to offend, the desire to be cautious and inoffensive, the importance of not being noted as being the whining pest that you just know publishers dread. What the writer really wants to write is more like this:
Dear bastard power-mad editor,
Where the———— is my great novel of the Napoleonic wars? You’ve had it on your desk for six sodding months and it’s only 200 pages so you must have read it. For Christ’s sake speak to me! Don’t tell me you’ve lost it or that it never reached you, because at the moment my ego is so fragile that I’m on the edge of unreason and life is so fine and dandy that I’m contemplating hurling myself under the next train on the Northern Line.
REFLECTIONS ON FAILURE.
‘FAILURE’: THAT IS a sledge-hammer word. In our ultra-sensitive world, where we try to protect every living species from the terrors of language, we avoid using it. A horse comes in last at the races: it’s not a failure, it’s a ‘tryer’ with an unlucky habit of ‘struggling at the back’. In the unenlightened past you could say that someone was a failure and not fret that you were risking prodding them to self harm or litigation, or even to depression and suicide.
But it is a word which cuts sudden and deep: ‘failure’, ‘failing’, ‘being failed’ — This is a lethal member of that group of F-words in the English language, emotionless thugs who loiter in the dark corridor of that neglected tower-block of our self-doubt. His friends are ‘flounder’, ‘flop’, ‘fudge’ and ‘fumble’. F sounds match well with those nagging emotions inhabiting uncertainty, lack of faith in the self, tentative erosion of the ego.
It is even more deadly after its partner, silence, has caused a wearing, tormenting period of angst – something familiar to all writers awaiting an editorial decision.
Conferences, workshops, magazines and web sites teem with advice to aspiring writers, offering tips on how to cope with being ‘unaccepted’ or ‘unpublished.’ ‘Failure’ is excluded from the vocabulary of creative writing, and the long agony of silence in which publishers do not respond to scripts, is ignored. The poor writer sits there, enduring a condition without alleviation or remedy, waiting months for a response, in a great, dominating silence, a word-free space in his or her life in which adjectives describing the work in limbo enter the mind with increasing agony: words such as ‘predictable’, ‘flat’, ‘bland’ or ‘hackneyed’. The persistent thought is, well, I’ve failed. It’s a question of how they will explain that failure.
The writer’s fragile ego is a vital factor of course: we are reportedly a delicate breed who yield to tears at the slightest hint of a negative reception of our wonderful words, the product of perhaps years of hard labour at the desk. But is this merely a myth? Surely rejection is so commonly experienced that the writer grows a carapace as thick as a brick? Not so. For many, even writing the opening sentence of the new novel brings that black shadow of failure over the scene. The completed work inevitably then prompts the writer to edit: out comes the red pencil and soon, that growing doubt increases to a belief that what has been produced is third-rate and will never be edited up to first-rate.
The ego is thin and brittle as filo pastry, and the consequences of rejection may be extreme. Offices have been wrecked and livers turned to stone by booze because of rejection — that callous and thoughtless refusal to accept the manuscript (seen through the eyes of the hapless writer that is). The denial of literary talent may be the negation of the artist’s sense of self. But, after all, we’re talking business, and in the writing game, the ringing tills win over the sighing writerly laments.
Hanging over the failed author, like the Sword of Damocles, is the sad tale of poet Thomas Chatterton, who wrote poetry he claimed was by an earlier poet, Thomas Rowley; he was loved and admired at first, but then, at the age of just seventeen, he took his own life by taking arsenic, living in terrible penury. It is of little importance that his work was written supposedly as being by an imagined writer. There is no plagiarism there, and he was still amazingly talented and creative. He had immediate success, followed by rapid and extreme failure, rejected by the cruel world he longed to join.
DEEPER THOUGHTS ON MISSING THE MARK.
AS JOSEPH BRODSKY wrote: ‘The sad truth is that words fail reality as well…’ In other words, the creativity in writing is doomed to fail anyway – in the deepest sense that we fail to put on a page the perceptions and feelings we had that initially moved us to write. We all know that even the best writing – the classics of every form and genre- have failed, ultimately, to recreate on the page what existed in a pre-verbal form in the author’s mind. All writers have had that crushing feeling: there has been a struggle to write exactly what emotional statement or insight has been felt, and still, after writing draft after draft, it is not right, not accurate. We have to accept that we work to get as close as we can to that pre-verbal perception. So in a philosophical sense, failure is inevitable.
But the gap between that kind of failure and the rejection slip is immense. T S Eliot understood this, as he shows in these lines from ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock:’
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all,
That is not it, at all.’
Yet, in spite of philosophy and its ruminations, there is still the persistent topic of ‘bad writing.’ The problem is that we all feel unsure how to define it. In the classic collection of failed poetry, The Stuffed Owl (1930), the editors, Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, admitted their uncertainty by writing that ‘ There is bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse.’ But at least they provided a list of those most likely to produce the bad Bad verse: The field of bad Bad Verse is vast and confusing in its tropical luxuriance. The illiterate, the semi-literate, the Babu, the nature-loving contributor to the county newspaper, the retired station-master, the spinster lady coyly attuned to Life and Spring, the hearty but ill-equipped patriot…’ The editors are definitely biased and not a little unfair, working in dead stereotypes, but their point is that, as they put it later in their essay, that they ‘warn the reader strongly against despising or patronising good Bad verse.’
All this means that, as far as rejection goes, there has always to be an element of taste. One critic’s realism is another one’s sentimentality. This is all very sensible and rational. But there is another element, a spiritual one. This introduces the subject of spiritual guidance. We need all the help we can get, including that from another, higher plane.
OUR PATRON SAINT.
THOSE IN THE lower depths of uncertainty, self-doubt and fear of being rebuffed need someone to pray to. St Jude is the patron saint of failures, but that general sense will not do. We need a saint who exceeded in achieving failure on a grand scale.
The rejected writer, perhaps more than any artist, needs words of comfort. They may not be wise words, but at least the poor scribe needs a listener. The writer is notorious for talismans. In my office I have a clutter of such objects, all supposedly bring beneficent feelings and assurance to me: a Hopi chain with Kokopelli the flute-player; the Sun God of Egypt’ Ankh, the Roman owl Glaucus, pet of Minerva who looked after wisdom and creative sorts. I even have a cheap version of a Tudor poesy ring, and at least fifty cards pinned around the place with quotes, mantras and maxims from the wise. They have been useful but more is needed- something deeply spiritual.
We need a patron saint of rebuffed writers, to lead us through the following history, and a case could be made for Chatterton, but a more likely candidate comes to mind. My suggestion is Gilbert, first described by Stephen Pile in his Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures. Pile notes that a certain Gilbert Young wrote a book called World Government Crusade. This was rejected ‘by more publishers than any other single manuscript.’
Saint Gilbert be with us, we writers in search of fame, glory and most of all our name on the spine of a book. Saint Gilbert, perhaps assisted by Saint Charlotte Bronte, because she ignored the patronising claptrap of Southey and pressed on, writing in between the ironing, the cooking and looking after her dad when he was going blind.
What follows in this space, as well as my own story, is an account of a forgotten path in modern social and intellectual history – the story of famous rejections in the ranks of our British authors, along with the unsung heroic life of someone (moi) who has tried to push words into every available crack in modern society- inspired by the unshakable belief that words are good for you and that sharing words with others is better than reading them when alone in some garret. Yes, he has tried and been rejected so often along the way – as all we scribblers have. Has the poor scribbler in these pages been wrong? Who knows? The activity of inflicting words in public has a very long history. The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf poet began his recitation with the word ‘Hwaet!’ This means, roughly translated, ‘Now then, shut up and listen.’ I would never be so rude. Let me put it this way: Dear reader, I beg your indulgence in presenting you with lamentable stories of writers rebuffed, and also my own failures, my poor words, the shavings from the floor of that great wooden chest of language that is my literary life. Or, if you like, from that bin of rejection slips that has shadowed my literary struggles.
The next set of entries in this series will trace the growth of rejection, the plight of authors down the centuries, and will also contain some of my own experience as a man unwanted, shut outside and often cold-shouldered: a man, in short, who has the empathy to share setbacks and rebuffs with rejected authors everywhere.
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‘.
Note: This essay is part of a series on ‘literary rejections’.