The perseverance of authors in the face of multiple rejections gives hope to many struggling writers. But is rejection always just an obstacle to success?
In a recent interview with Jane Hutcheon on ABC’s One Plus One program, Australian author Peter Carey spoke about how he struggled for ten years to find success with a publisher. Carey had his work routinely rejected but he persevered. He says of this: ‘If someone had told me that it’s going to take me ten years, I would have said, “Well probably for most people that’s probably correct, but it’s not going to take me ten years.” And of course it did.’
Despite a decade of rejection, he went on to win the Man Booker Prize twice, for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, and he also won the Miles Franklin Award three times. Carey owes his success partly to his early failure, something that most established writers, as well as emerging writers, can relate to. Although his story is typical of the romanticised, struggling-writer archetype, it is one shared by very few writers, and international success following failure is quite rare.
Kurt Vonnegut once stated that ‘any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.’ The hot fudge sundae, in this instance, is every aspiring writer or disgruntled postgraduate student who has melted under the disapproving or otherwise indifferent glare of a reviewer. In writing, rejection is seen as a rite of passage, but this fact seldom softens the blow of its impact. It is a minefield of deflated egos, self-doubt and subjectivity.
Rejection is almost always theorised in ways that sublimate the pain of rejection into ideals of nobility or growth, and at the core of these theories the notions of persistence and determination obstinately function to alleviate, dilute or romanticise rejection in order to make the process vaguely bearable.
Rejection is undeniably subjective. This is why so many people are turning to self-publishing methods, not only seen as an easier avenue to get your name out there, but as a method by which the writer controls the very process of publication. As a result, a well-known but somewhat undeserved stigma is attached to self-publishing.
Ironically, two of the greatest works of modern literature – James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – were both self-published after numerous rejections (theorist John Ralston Saul argues that they are the last great novels before the death of literature). The fact that they were rejected so many times is at once incredulous and oddly inspiring for struggling writers.
Notorious rejection letters have been archived in media history in order to retrospectively marvel at the audacity of refusing something that would go on to be a masterpiece. These letters serve to show that no matter how much experience an editor has, their opinions are fallible, a fact that gives many writers hope.
Aldous Huxley was told that he would not be able to publish animal stories in the United States (shortly before Animal Farm was published), and others, such as Norman Mailer, were deterred from writing altogether. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was famously rejected many, before Simon and Schuster, the twenty-second publisher to consider the manuscript, accepted the work (and so gave the book its name). One of the first publishers said of the manuscript: ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.’ An initial reviewer of the novel stated that the book ‘doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper.’
Catch-22 is now considered one of the greatest cult novels in existence.
Jack London, on the other hand, was purportedly rejected 600 times before he sold his first story. His work The Call of the Wild is now considered a modern classic and frequently appears on high-school and university curriculums.
Jerzy Kosinski, author of Passion Play and Being There, re-submitted his bestselling novel Steps to fourteen publishers, all of whom rejected it, including Random House, the company who had originally published the book.
Similarly, David Cameron from The Review Review conducted an experiment titled ‘The New Yorker Rejects Itself’, in which he copied a story previously published in The New Yorker and re-submitted it to the magazine under a different name. The story was rejected.
Gertrude Stein once received a rejection letter regarding her manuscript for The Making of Americans, which was critical yet tongue-in-cheek, purposefully mirroring the dense and repetitive prose of the famous author. In reply to Stein who wrote ‘A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, A.C. Fifield wrote:
I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post.
Some authors hold these rejections up as badges of honour. Indeed, the rejection letter for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, which the Atlantic Monthly decided was not ‘compelling enough’, is currently framed and hung in Indianapolis’s Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. The author clearly had a good sense of humour when it came to rejection.
Used to encourage those writers who continue to face rejection, these famous stories set a somewhat idealised precedent for aspiring authors, making one wonder about the extent to which a writer should pursue publication before giving up entirely. But even if success isn’t garnered throughout one’s lifetime, there is always the hope of posthumous success, as Geoffrey Chaucer and Franz Kafka illustrate. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously believed himself to be a failure at the time of his death, but we all know that The Great Gatsby was given a second life throughout the 1940s and is now considered a classic work of American literature.
Underneath the dismal reality of rejection lurks the optimistic – and somewhat dangerous – promise not only of publication, but also, in some instances, of literary fame along the lines of other failure-turned-success authors. In The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent, Laura Cross writes: ‘It is important, for your own peace of mind and for your professional success as an author, to maintain a positive attitude and persevere until you acquire an agent and land a book deal.’
In this instance, Cross uses the example of Chicken Soup for the Soul, another well-known book notable for its 144 rejections, in order to inspire optimism in unpublished writers.
However, as Morgan Freeman’s character Red states in The Shawshank Redemption, hope is a dangerous thing, and it can drive people insane. A positive attitude does not guarantee publication. As pessimistic as it seems, hope often seems to serve only those who actually find success. For the unpublished majority, hope becomes a torment, and stories of rags to riches can make them feel even worse.
The odds of being published are small, and even if you do get published, the odds of becoming a well-known author, not just a published author, are marginal. This is the way of the arts industry. The majority of practicing artists – writers, actors, musicians – are not well known, but this doesn’t necessarily diminish their success. In fact we sometimes forget that the practice of art does not go hand in hand with the luxury of fame.
Of course, the odds of being published are steadily in your favour the more you write and submit. Giving up after three rejections hardly grants you victim-status. Giving up after 600 is a little more understandable. But each writer has his or her own threshold.
Rejection is the business of writers, but there can be a fine and often elusive line between the struggling artist believing in their work against the tyranny of reviewers and questioning one’s own innate ability to write, and to write well. Not all rejected writers are Joseph Hellers or Kurt Vonneguts in waiting. Many may not have the ability to write well at all, or well enough to be published.
But popular stories of eventual triumph constantly support the notion of persevering and pursuing success in the face of adversity, a situation that shows how much literary rejection parallels romantic rejection. In their work Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love, which addresses romantic rejection, Roy Baumeister and Sara Wotman note that Hollywood films and other ‘cultural scripts call for persistence’. They also write that ‘losses of esteem are often portrayed as temporary trials on the way to eventual romantic success’.
The same process occurs in writing; the notion of refusal can often be seen as an inevitable though minor setback in the otherwise triumphant narrative of the genius-in-waiting. Before he was ever published, Beat author Jack Kerouac often believed publishers never understood his genius.
And so aspiring writers hold these tales of struggle and eventual success up as models of their own situation, using them as evidence that their failure will culminate in eventual literary success.
But even those writers with the determination of Kerouac may never become anything more than aspiring writers.
Another way in which literary rejection and romantic rejection cross over is the presence of silence. Due to the influx of submissions that magazines receive, a number of publications will simply state that if you do not hear from them within a certain time period, then they are uninterested in your work. The editor is spared the unfortunate task of rejecting the aspiring author outright, the author does not get a conclusive rejection, and within that silence an unflattering dialogue can emerge.
In relationships, Baumeister and Wotman call this the ‘conspiracy of silence’; that is, when a person’s silence does not confirm their rejection of another, but nor does it confirm their affections, leading to a breakdown in communication and understanding: ‘The one person doesn’t want to speak the words of rejection, and the other doesn’t want to hear it. Hence, inevitably, communication is poor and the two often disagree about whether there was a mutual attraction and whether there was explicit rejection.’
In the writer’s case, the silence that replaces the traditional rejection letter is often more disappointing and upsetting, but also more elusive. The gesture is necessary, given the number of submissions, but also a little duplicitous.
Not only are rejection letters declining as online submissions increase, but so too is the very word ‘rejection’. Editors are seemingly aware that the term is harsh. An unsuccessful submission to the online program Submittable does not receive the standard ‘Rejected’ stamp that seems to be part of some inevitable, romantic (and even cathartic) narrative, but instead the manuscript will be accompanied by the somewhat underhanded word ‘Declined’ (in red lettering), a linguistically cleaner word.
This may be an innocuous gesture, or it may be a subtle way for gatekeepers to wash their hands of the guilt of rejecting unsuccessful writers. It is never a fun job. But the word ‘rejection’, at least, can inspire defiance in aspiring writers, or even produce some luxurious self-pity, rather than ‘declined’, which sounds polite in the wrong sort of way.
After a never-ending list of ‘declined’ non-letters, writers may eventually give up entirely. While the stories of rejected writers who become Pulitzer Prize winners flood the internet, we never hear the stories about writers who never become established authors, simply because we have no interest in the life and personality of an unsuccessful writer whose books will never be read.
Of course it is hardly appealing to promote a pessimistic line of thinking when it comes to publishing. But it is perhaps necessary to convey the reality of publishing to writers early on, rather than propagating the stories of eventual success as the norm, which may draw out the pain of disappointment and leave writers more jaded as a result.
When we talk about rejection, we are mainly talking about writing within the publishing sector, and the intent (and failure) to publish; a writer may continue to write their stories without publication, writing for themselves and for their own gratification. As J.D. Salinger once stated: ‘I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’
Perhaps we can agree that there are published writers and there are unpublished writers, and one is not more of a writer than the other. If you happen to enjoy writing and get published, that seems to be a bonus. To survive the scourge of rejection, it is often easier for writers who genuinely love writing as a passion rather than those writing in order to get their work published, because there is at least one reader: the writer themselves.
If someone genuinely loves to write, then the sting of rejection is slightly less painful, but not entirely diminished. The writer who loves to write feels the rejection of their ideas, their expression and their thoughts, rather than their inability to get ‘out there’ and gain recognition. As with many aspects of life, our ability to cope with rejection depends on why we are actually persevering in the first place: whether we hope someone will eventually cut us a break, bringing us the success and attention we know we deserve, or whether we are willing to continue writing for the sake of it, for our own enjoyment, even if it means remaining unpublished for a long period of time, if not forever.