A Selection of Rejections

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In my youth I papered the walls of my studio apartment’s bathroom with rejection letters. Sure it hurt to receive them – and man did I receive them, in swarms of Biblical-plague proportion. But at least as wallpaper they gave me some utility, in terms of covering up holes and mold. They made a fair conversation piece, too. Mostly, as wallpaper, they made a mockery of the bad news they contained, at a time when I really needed a strategy for holding bad news at bay. I won’t say that I said, while urinating, “I pee on you, rejection!” but okay maybe I did.

Of course, my rejecters weren’t always wrong. Some of my pitches were just downright stupid. No publisher should ever say yes to something like Bad Ideas for Children (where “running with scissors is scary fun!”) – but they’re not infallible, these guardians of the gate. They, like us, are only human, a point worth keeping in mind when the burden of rejection becomes great to bear. Multiple cases in point flow from the book Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard in 1990 and recently unearthed by me.

Oh, where to begin, where to begin…

e e cummings, whose in Just- spring when the world is mud-luscious inspired and informed my entire junior high school English experience, had a book rejected by the dozen largest publishing houses of his time, only to be bankrolled in the end by his mom. What I take away from that is the next time my mother says she loves my stuff, I’ll tell her to put her money where her mouth is. The other take-away, of course, resonates of William Goldman’s classic observation about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” Publishers were wrong about e e; they can just as easily be wrong about us.

And not just wrong, but vituperatively so. Listen to the snark in this rejection of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy: “While I can see this being published,  and even reviewed with puzzled respect, I don’t think it will help a bit to clear up the mystery of what Barth is up to as a writer.” A lot of rejecters get snarky; however, if we may think with charity upon agents and editors for just a moment, we may recognize how much really bad writing they are exposed to – stacks and stacks of it every day – and maybe excuse their snark. Then again, one Harry Crews received this advice about his manuscript: “Burn it, son, burn it.” To me that’s just rude.

As is this response to E.L. Doctorow: “Perhaps there is a public that can take all this with a straight face but I’m not one of them.”

And this advice to Zane Grey: “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.”

And this comment about Ellen Glasgow: “It looks as if the author had studied New York from a winter spent at a New York hotel.”

And this grim assessment: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Oh, Rudyard! Oh, dear!

See, here’s our problem. We get rejected, and we don’t know if the person rejecting us is doing so for reasons of aesthetics, finances, pharmaceuticals, or spleen. You could say that, in a sense, our whole indy-pub model is about rejecting the rejecters. This strategy, by the way, was used to great effect by William Saroyan, way back in 1940. Saroyan refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Time of Your Life because, as he understood it, “Business has no business judging art.” You tell ‘em, Bill.

It can’t help but amuse, of course, when publishers blow it in truly spectacular fashion. Said one editor in passing on The Peter Principle, “I can foresee no commercial possibilities for such a book.” That’s not just wrong, that’s perennial best-seller wrong. Yet not as wrong as, “You’re welcome to [John] Le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.” And still yet not as wrong as, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Really? Not even if the girl is Anne Frank?

Publishers’ mindsets can range from the timid – “It is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities” – to the outraged: “I recommend that [Lolita] be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” But for the absolute last float on the clueless parade, I would have to nominate this evaluation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

It’s no wonder we want to leave publishers and rejecters behind and just shift the publishing paradigm to the crowdsourced response of the marketplace directly. As we do so, though, we should remember that this whole thing is not new. A hundred years ago, George Bernard Shaw said, “I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them… All that is necessary in the production of a book is an author and a bookseller, without the intermediate parasite.”

And the moral of the story, kids? It’s the one you’ll find in my book How to Write Good, “Keep giving them you until you is what they want.” Eventually they’ll come to their senses, though it may take longer than you like. Hope that it happens while you’re still alive. And remember that James Joyce’s Ulysses was burned – literally torched – by outraged readers in multiple jurisdictions before it found recognition as a classic of modern fiction.

Think about that the next time rejection pees on you – and don’t fight the urge to pee back. Nobody knows anything, and the ones who think they know most are likely the ones who know least.

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About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

Comments

  1. says

    Now rejections come via e-mail. To wallpaper the bathroom, you would have to waste ink and paper to print them out. I delete them and move on.

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  2. says

    Love this!

    I’m just a little disturbed, though, that none of the myriad rejections I have received as I’ve run the course was quite as vituperative as those you quoted. Does that mean that my work is too mediocre to rate a slam? Sigh.

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  3. Julie Kettlewell says

    Loved this post! I received so many rejection letters a few years ago that I lost all of my self-confidence, and I’m still working on getting that back. You have inspired me! However, I believe I will resist the urge to wallpaper my bathroom. :)

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  4. Denise Willson says

    It’s bad enough getting rejected, but once I received a form rejection letter from an agent I’d never even solicited. Seriously. I’d never even heard of the agency. How’s that for a kick in the pants?

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  5. says

    I have met some very nice agents and been rejected a great deal, but the perplexing part is shopping around a middle grade re-imagining of the Peter and Wendy story only to be told by an agent, “I want to see a Peter Pan story with no magic and no flying.” How am I supposed to take this gatekeeper seriously? “Regular people,” on the other hand, have a completely different reaction (with one person telling me that the pitch “took my breath away”), and I suspect that most children and many adult readers really like magic and flying.

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  6. says

    Wonderful post. It’s incredibly encouraging to remember how fallible the publishing industry can be=) Not only remember it, but see it in their rejections of the greats. Thanks.

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  7. says

    Thanks, John. We writers need to be reminded of the big picture frequently so we can keep things in perspective. I especially like your advice “Keep giving them you until you is what they want.” I firmly believe there’s an agent and/or a publisher out there for everybody. We just have to find the right one.

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  8. says

    I have received a fair number of rejection letters, some with nice lines of encouragement and “sorry it’s just not for me” type explanations. Since most submissions are by email, there’s usually not even a response due to the agents “large number of submissions”.

    The most encouraging letters are the ones that want to see your NEXT manuscript. It gives me hope.

    Hopefully I’ll receive a fun one like the ones listed above that I can then wave in the face of those who have rejected me.

    Thanks for the laugh, John.

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  9. Ronda Roaring says

    There have been books written about rejections. Around my neck of the woods, the most notorious is when Cornell University Press rejected Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. He was a professor at Cornell at the time. He sold the book to Random House and went on to have that very popular tv program by the same name. Billions and billions of people, myself included, watched it. Even acquisition editors can make mistakes from time to time.

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  10. says

    John,
    Your post is a wonderful reminder that the gatekeepers can get it soooo very wrong. I would add to your list, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help – rejected by 65 agents before one saw its potential. In addition, I have more than one colleague who gave up querying for indy-pubbing. When they hit bestseller status themselves, they were completely underwhelmed to suddenly start receiving solicitations of representation from agents who had previously ignored their queries for the very books on the bestseller lists!

    In their rejections, polite agents and publishers will often say that ours is a very subjective business, a point with which no one will argue. Does anyone else find all of this “know nothingness”, maybe even lack of vision, rather scary?

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  11. says

    My first full-length play, which was commissioned and played in small theatres in LA and NYC was wildly well-received by AUDIENCES…meaning people that BOUGHT tickets, people who made a point to wait AFTER the show to say how much they LOVED the show, and, OFTEN, were profoundly affected. More than a few had tears in their eyes. I received tons of e-mails saying we loved “EVERY character” or “I am still thinking about the show.” I have no less than two pages of these kinds of messages from BOTH audience members and fellow writers, whom I consider to be my best critics (meaning, most truthful and helpful).
    And the very FIRST review? SCATHING. Downright hateful about my cluelessness and pathetic “hackery”…a writer’s worst nightmare, right? If I had not had a flood of people waiting to tell me what a great show it was the night before I would have been devastated. The rest of the reviews were mixed…reflecting upon the venue, certain actors, etc….in those reviews my writing was considered “adept”, “agile”, “hilarious in parts”, “engaging.”
    (More than one person after reading that first review said they thought the reviewer might have had some baggage about the subject matter…or maybe was a bit “off” mentally. The degree of vitriol in the review made me inclined to agree, frankly.)
    Let us remember, it’s ALL opinion. I don’t like a lot of Stephen King’s writing (though I love his book ON writing), but I think he is a genius in his own right and a master craftsman. (Just not a big sci-fi, horror fan.)

    I refuse to watch Twilight, but does that make millions of teenagers “wrong”, does that make it “bad?” Okay, not a good example…

    Point? All I need is MY audience and that one guy at that one production company or publishing company or whatever might be the one that LOVES Twilight. In other words, not MY audience. I’m not writing for him. I’m not writing for people who want to come to the theatre and not think…there is someone else writing for them, PLENTY of people writing for them.

    If we write from our souls, what the Universe tells us to writing, what must be writ by US, there is an audience, and we will find them…and they will find us.

    The people between us and them have only as much power as we give them.

    Er, sorry…this is what happens when writer’s “leave a comment.”

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  12. says

    Wow. So I’m in good company when I was told by an agent’s assistant, “All you need to do is learn to tell stories.” !!! After I finished being outraged by the nonconstructive insult I thought, “You know what? Thanks. Now I have a story to tell Jon Stewart.” :P

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  13. says

    Great post. Reminds me of James Lee Burke’s story, of the thousands of rejections he got for his books, but especially the one publisher who took the trouble to write him a letter, telling him how bad he really thought his book was.
    We really should quit moaning, and just get on with writing and submitting! :-)

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  14. says

    I remember being told in the early nineties that they liked my story but Anne Rice had vampires all wrapped up and there was no room for more… LOL –wish I had followed my heart!

    Lesson: Go with your heart, no one has it wrapped up!

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  15. says

    Makes me feel a little better about my many rejections, back when they used to all come by the mail, especially the form letters I used to get. Now I get rejected by email, by editors who want to reject me more specifically, and faster.

    (I’m just kidding. I know personalized rejections are better, and I’ve had a few sales in there lately.)

    In the end, I’d rather get rejected anyday than never hear back from the editor or publication at all.

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  16. says

    In 2010 I racked up close to 100 rejections on my first novel, so I self-published it in 2011 through KDP and Createspace. In 2012 I received $35,000 in royalties from it and its two sequels. I am self-publishing my fourth book this year.

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  17. Larkin Warren says

    I have shoeboxes of rejections—I began as a poet, and those rejections in particular, genre-wise, are lacerating; poets and their editors felt marginalized and threatened long before anyone else did. I just decided to not stew or sulk about any of them; they were information, just as every bad date I ever had was information. I have had lovely acceptances followed by good working relationships with editors; I have had lovely acceptances followed by horrific relationships and a deep desire to burn the manuscript altogether (or the editor). And I’ve had rejections from one house and acceptance from another, the comments from both, about the same ms., defying logic. But I’ve met some “gatekeepers” in my time who were smart, who read incisively, who love books and writers, and have worked tirelessly in these bizarro times to keep books and writers viable in an industry in which we all want to survive. I write because I want to, because I must, and if someone says “this really sucks,” well, that’s clearly not the editor for me. But then, I don’t want a relationship with the car that tailgates me and flashes his bright lights and then passes me with barely a coat of paint to spare, either. Drive by, and I’ll just keep on keeping on. There are so many venues now, at all levels of visibility and comradeship, that if I added anger to the mix of my process, everything would become about that, and then I’d avoid my desk altogether. Yes to Chris Gasser: Go with your heart, nobody has it all wrapped up.

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  18. says

    Ha, I have this book too, and I love it. It helps to know, and have affirmed in print, that agents and editors don’t have the crystal ball we writers sometimes think they have concerning what readers want. Thanks for helping bring that to attention.

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