October 03, 2004

Who Only Stand and Wait

On the eve of the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, writers here and there around the world are steeling themselves for the wait. (They whisper soft wishes to themselves as they clean closets, lift jar after jar after jar of homemade preserves and pickles out of a boiling pot of water, or make strained attempts to begin the next Work in Progress.) Some have dreams of a savvy literary agent selling book rights in Italy, Germany, Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands. Others think good thoughts towards film rights, or simply the sale of their first novel. Publisher’s Lunch reports have been coming via email with snappy accounts of the blizzard of deals that have been made prior to the big event, teasing the rest of us into hoping it will be a publishing contract, rather than a sad, black lump of rejection letters that is to be left at the door in the near future.

And I thought waiting for word on query letters to agents was difficult.

Any writer who tells you, ‘rejection’s part of the process, I never take it personally’, is lying. Lying to save mind, heart, and the precious, essential impulse to pick up the pen and start again. No one likes rejection.

When it comes to taking the silver bullets of rejection, even the Grande Dame of Vampires, Anne Rice has a limit. She’s biting back at the recent slew of catty customer reviews that were posted at Amazon.com re: Blood Canticle ,the final installment of her Vampire Chronicles. Her personal post, both at Amazon and her updated reply on her website, make for wonderful reading. It has a bit of everything…praise for her faithful fans, scathing words for those who have attacked her, and explanations as to why she doesn’t need editors and what she was trying to accomplish in this latest work. Fed up? Thin skinned after all these years? A calculated and brilliant way to stir up publicity in the ever growing world of the internet?

One thing I felt Ms. Rice was justified in saying was that it seems as if those who are the most vicious with their comments are those who haven’t even read the work. Theirs is a world of taking joy in making an uneducated, name-calling mark in an open forum.

Sadly enough, today’s consumer culture is doing it’s best to raise our children to do more of the same, to become snot-nosed fault-finders rather than true seekers of beauty. One example of this is the new pre-teen girl game, “Cover to Cover”. Each girl in the group comes armed with a copy of her favourite fashion magazine. They race to find ‘the ugliest hand bag’, ‘the best couple’, and so on. Although I’m guessing the creators of the game left out ‘fattest ass’, and ‘best boob-job’, the girls are given the means and encouraged to make up their own categories. Worst Botox-face. Spot the airbrushing. My favourite model is more anorexic than yours. Reject or be rejected.

But I did find a link of solace in this world of finger pointing, posted by M.J. Rose on her Buzz Balls and Hype web log. It’s a rejection letter for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nebula award winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness . I appreciate Ms. LeGuin’s generosity in putting it up on her personal web page. Yes, famous writers have been rejected time and time again…

J.K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, rejected 30 times.

and here are a few rejection moments in literary history from Michael Larsen's book, Literary Agents.

Pulitzer Award winning (and Oprah's latest classics book club pick), Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth was rejected fourteen times.

Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected twelve times.

The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon and Schuster planned to publish it during the same season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the 22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.

Zelda wouldn't marry F. Scott Fitzgerald until he sold a story. He papered his bedroom walls with rejection slips before he won her hand.

So here’s to all the struggling writers out there waiting to hear from literary journals, magazines, agents, editors, and publishers – both big and small, glossy and or sublime. Get back to what matters, get back to creating, get back to your W.I.P. and the hunt.

A Few Words to a Young Writer by Ursula K. LeGuin...
Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth. A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.