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.