Astronomers are greatly disappointed when, having traveled halfway around the world to see an eclipse, clouds prevent a sight of it; and yet a sense of relief accompanies the disappointment.
Jean-François Martin, Le Monde des livres (‘The world of books’)
A good friend of mine recently applied for a prestigious writing course at a university. He’s had some things published, won some prizes, and done a couple of courses already. I was convinced that all of that was leading him to this fantastic moment of acceptance. They’d come around to his house with a marching band and lift him onto their shoulders and parade him through the streets (of the national literary consciousness). And then a year of digestive-biscuit-and-tea-fuelled workshopping would commence, after which he would basically blast through the roof (of the national literary consciousness) like Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine.
“I guess there was a sense of inevitability about it,” he said later. You can feel it already, can’t you. He DIDN’T GET IN.
It’s not like he’s died. But something has died.
“This must be how All Blacks supporters feel when they don’t win the World Cup,” he said. “Things are pretty damn low just now.” (He then segued, bleakly, into the outcome of the recent New Zealand election: “These are dark days indeed, and the future looks darker yet.” This interpretation – which many people I know would say is a fair observation in itself – was clearly an echo of his feelings at being rejected from the course. His happiness had hinged upon that result, and now a future wholly unwished-for must be comprehended.)
Yet being rejected is what writers do. At first, it’s a bit like getting dead-legged. The pain! but also the numbness. Until finally you can’t feel your leg any more. Your leg is so dead that you learn how to carry on walking with the dead leg just trailing along. You learn to keep in the back of your mind, at all times, that one day you’ll be able to tell the story of these rejections, and people will laugh with you about those crazy old unenlightened days. You will be a hero. You can look forward to the sweet moment of breakthrough that will give your suffering its inner richness.
Being rejected as a writer also helps you to gather an extensive repository of self-reassurances.
- I’ve told the truth, and they think their readers don’t want to hear it.
- They don’t know what shelf it would go on in the bookshop, or what category it would go under on Kindle, or whatever.
- I can make an artwork and/or wallpaper of my rejection slips, like that guy.
I’ve noticed a phenomenon to do with rejection letters. Apparently people want to hear about them – the crueller the better – especially when canonical authors are implicated. Is this the literary equivalent of celebrities with cellulite? There are many, many online articles – and lots of them seem to be cobbled together from other online articles – about legendary writers who were serially rejected. You can read quotes from rejection letters to writers like Faulkner (“Good God, I can’t publish this!”), Orwell (“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA”), Nabokov (“I recommend that this be buried under a stone for a thousand years”). You can go to the Rejection Wiki to see the form rejections that many literary journals send out, or visit that blog Literary Rejections On Display (good idea, but to my mind poorly executed). You can buy a book that celebrates rejection (The Rejection Collection by New Yorker cartoonist Diffee Matthew, or that one compiled by the guy who compiled Other People’s Love Letters – oh yeah, Other People’s Rejection Letters). Letters Of Note also does a very nice line in famous people’s rejection letters.
I guess we’re meant to feel better after reading all this. We can now say with certainty that it’s not just us: the world is a cold bastard. To be alive is to be disappointed. We have a more nuanced view of the names on people’s bookshelves (and successful people in general). It isn’t easy to gain acceptance, and in this we have things in common with Nabokov.
But what else can we take from the knowledge of all this rejection? I wonder if it’s anything more than: “Look how repeatedly and/or cruelly so-and-so was scorned, and how that person’s refusal to give up and/or sheer good luck all paid off in the end because they went on to change the world.” It’s the same old drum – some might call it a dead horse – that has led the empire of Chicken Soup for the Soul to its best-selling, bloated state.
Rejection might be universal but I don’t think there’s a universal message to take from it. It’s an experience particular to the individual. That’s what makes it universal. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t share our rejections. We should if we want. We should commiserate with one another and suggest useful defense mechanisms. We should buy each other beer and kebabs to be enjoyed in stoic silence.
Unfortunately, for my friend, whose writing I admire, being rejected from a creative writing course carries much deeper implications than rejection from a literary journal, magazine, publishing house, or competition. Rather than not fulfilling the possibly narrow criteria of one of those outlets, there seems to be a larger judgement here about his value and potential as a writer. He proposed that one reason could simply be that he doesn’t have enough demons, and wondered if he should acquire some.
Sarah Laing, New Wave
But he also feels that maybe, he just doesn’t fit the “good writing model”. His voice and his subject matter don’t tick the boxes. Something’s “going on”.
How do you argue with that creeping sense of alienation? These were my feeble commiserations.
- A course in creative writing is only one possible entry point into a writing career. For many people it’s the exit. It provides no certainty.
- You can write the book you’ve planned to write, course or no course. Nobody can stop you from writing and reading.
- It might’ve been the tiniest thing, the smallest glitch, that tipped your fate. In time, with practise, that thing will fade into oblivion.
- It might’ve been the biggest problem, the most fundamental obfuscation, that tipped your fate. In time, with practise, this thing will evolve into a compelling feature of your work, and the reason that it is compelling is because it should be wrong. [See rejection note to Ursula K. Le Guin: The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable.]
- Or, just, there might’ve been tons of unusually great applicants this year.
I feel an urgent need to rescue my friend from bitterness. Because, first: even though bitter writers can be great writers, the shame is that they’re more often remembered for their misanthropy. (Bukowksi: “I do not like the human race. I don’t like their heads. I don’t like their faces. I don’t like their feet. I don’t like their conversations. I don’t like their hairdos. I don’t like their automobiles. I don’t like their dogs or their cats or their roses.”)
Second, I fear that the belief that there’s some kind of coterie – controlling everything from the inside out, high-fiving the privileged few and snobbing the rest – is ultimately very destructive for a writer. Even if it is true we should make every effort to not believe it. Instead we should imagine that the people who make the decisions are just readers. Maybe they’re looking for stories that light them up in some way. Maybe they’re trying to anticipate what other readers will see there. (It’s not necessary to say that in ten, twenty, thirty, forty years’ time I may well think differently about the business of acceptance and rejection.) It’s possible that they are.