By STEPHEN WADE.
Fifth in a series.
WRITERS AND POETS came long before publishers, agents and editors. The heart goes out to those first scribes who chipped words in rock or daubed on skins and were then lucky to have an audience of maybe one or two. It started as a family business. The wife would say, forcing the children to stare at a little haiku on the dinosaur skin mat, ‘Look what your father’s written, children. It’s about that smelly creature he stuck with his spear the other day… isn’t it lovely?’ Or, the husband would say, to the good wife who had stitched a line of Zen poetry in his new vest, ‘Look children, your mother’s written a poem… about a flower. Isn’t it great?’ Knowing that their dinner depended on a favourable criticism, the little mites would smile and hug the parents, walking off to mutter, ‘Er…gross!’ behind the community peeing-ditch.
Literary failure comes in many forms. Editors and publishers, we suspect, like to think of innovative ways to say that we scribes are rubbish and that we ought to go back to the day-job sweeping up litter or peeling kebabs. But the ‘rejection slip’ or ‘rejection e-mail’ is the offending communication. Stealing up unobserved sometimes, and at other times slamming you like a clout from Arnie when he’s come back again. At its most deadly, it arrives couched in deceptively cheerful terms. Rejection often begins with something cheery: ‘First, I must congratulate you on completing a mss. extending to more than 180,000 words.’ That’s fine. You feel a surge of good sensations. You have achieved something notable then? But: ‘However, the text as we have it is, sadly, uncommercial.’ You feel a rant coming on. How long was War and Peace for God’s sake? When was length a factor in skill and success? There is also the shiver of foreboding associated with the first word of the rejection letter. Typical unsettling words are: ‘Whilst,’ ‘despite,’ and ‘disappointingly.’
Early man and woman must have known literary rejection. Violence, aggression and downright open attacks are not uncommon and they are certainly not new. Today the poet is able to supply a retort to the editor by e-mail, writing ‘You know diddly-squit about good writing, you penny ha’penny hack.’ But in the early times, before civilisation as we know it, in a world pre-paper and pre-written word, the editor and writer might meet at the local watering-hole:
Editor: That crap. Take back
Writer: You crap. Mr break neck.
Editor: You suck.
Writer Get lost, dick-head.
IT TOOK SEVERAL centuries for cultured discussion of aesthetic points to be aired with an objective attitude taken by both parties. Time was needed for a suitable vocabulary of rejection to be gathered and regulated. It took perhaps a century for someone to realise that a certain degree of tact and consideration was required. Medieval rebuffs were rather crude, based on Anglo-Saxon monosyllables such as ‘ I’ve pissed better poetry than this, churl!’ By the great first Elizabethan age, the dialogue developed into this:
SCENE: The Mermaid Tavern, London
Dramatis personae: Dick Scrote, producer / Will Shakespeare, playwright.
DICK: Bill, the idea is fine. No problem with the Roman bloke falling for the
Pharoah girl. Plenty of wit, sex running out like melting ice cream, but…
WILL: Ah, there’s the rub must give us pause.
From the noisy pit you want endless applause.
The words are fine, you sugar-coat it,
Then squash the struggling bard who wrote it!
DICK: Well, it’s the battle of Actium, Bill. I can’t see my lads putting on
A sea battle, not in my little bug-hutch. Too ambitious by far. But
The death scene with the snake – that’s a cracking idea.
WILL: Fine! Then let’s have five acts of dying!
Have her thinking suicide and three acts of trying.
Really, Dick, this takes the biscuit.
I write a masterpiece and you won’t risk it.
DICK: Aye, like ‘the barge she sat in burned on the water.’
‘But she wants to die and I think she ought to…’
Exit Will in a huff
WILL: I’faith ‘tis something I always expected:
First to be prized a genius, and then rejected!
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’.