Romancing Rejection: ‘Don’t Cut Off An Ear’


O, ‘To Be Poor, Misunderstood, Overlooked’

In this blog-heaving era, you sometimes can find comments as compelling and as nuanced as the writings they follow.

An instance of this occurs this week at Writer Unboxed where Simon & Schuster author Jael McHenry is followed in her post by the literary agent Donald Maass. Taken together, her original post and his comment enrich each other and on a point that many in the author corps might prefer we just not mention.

McHenry’s piece, The Dangers of Storytelling, looks at the tendency among some writers to respond to classic writing-career woes by “telling stories about ourselves.”

By this, she means building up the experience of the struggle to create a little heroic scripture all our own. She writes:

How many publishers rejected the first book in the Harry Potter series? The exact number varies, depending on your corner of the internet, but that story is such a common one. Faced with rejections ourselves, we want to hear that amazing success can come following repeated rejection.

Can it? Yes. Does it? Only sometimes.

What does Maass say in his extended comment on the essay?

That the industry misses a Harry Potter on the first round doesn’t mean that it’s broken. It may only mean that J.K. Rowling wrote a really lousy query letter.

Ever look at it that way? Many haven’t, you’re not alone.

In fact, even the most cherished breakthrough stories passed around the industry! the industry! are, of course, romanticized editions of events that played out with all the confusion, uncertainty, perhaps even incoherence that our own days can feature. It’s so easy to fall for the “boy, he really knew what he was doing” stuff of hindsight.

In the overwhelming majority of big-break tales, our beloved protagonists were walking smack into walls just as much as you are and/or the creative types around you are doing right now. Bump! Somebody just did it.

‘That the industry misses a “Harry Potter” on the first round doesn’t mean that it’s broken. It may only mean that J.K. Rowling wrote a really lousy query letter.’
Donald Maass

What’s so effective about the McHenry-Maass duologue is that they get this across with parallel grace.

Maass sets up and executes on one of the best premise-and-punchline sequences you may read all week.

First the premise:

To be an artist means to be poor, misunderstood, overlooked and possibly missing an ear. The lure of the suffering artist narrative continues today in our corner of the artistic world. The arch villains are publishing’s gatekeepers.

And the punchline:

If your query is met with deafening silence don’t cut off an ear. Instead, maybe work up a better query letter–and maybe deepen the novel that you’re pitching too.

How Many Thumbs Down, Did You Say?

McHenry, like many of us, is ready to move things past the Ophelia-drifting-downstream stage:

Your number of rejections doesn’t matter. Saying that your work was turned down by 100 publishers doesn’t mean it’s bad, but neither is it a mark of achievement to have racked up that many no’s. The story of your book is a unique story, so don’t expect it to fit some pre-existing narrative.

And Maass is on the money with the kind of sentimental claptrap that tends to underscore the melodrama you find in so many of the blog posts and Facebook wallows that can make “community” — read group-sob — so addictive.

Like so many others, the novelists’ profession is romanticized and that narrative involves suffering. It started with the Romantic movement in literature in the early Nineteenth Century and reached its apotheosis, if you ask me, in Puccini’s opera La Boheme.

Yes, Puccini’s boys o’ the garret, pining for girlfriends, one of whom — grab those Kleenex! — has consumption and is coughing her way to a brilliant, heart-breaking death. Where is our Music for Writers string section when we need it?

Actors and operatic artists frequently say that their fluency in human emotion explains their attachment to the hoary stories of lovely loss and noble sacrifice. Because one must play the most extreme emotions, the idea goes, one can’t help living close to the giddy flame. Flamboyance, self-indulgence, a lot can be excused, so these folks will tell you, when one is living in touch with the beating heart of human frailty. Some writers will claim the same excuse for being maudlin about their manuscripts-flung-back-at-them.

‘It can be tempting to draw lines, and to name sinners and saints, but the world of writing and publishing isn’t really populated with heroes and villains.’
Jael McHenry

After all, there is always an evil system, isn’t there, a horrid overhang of bureaucratic and/or commercial power imagined to be purposefully and personally gunning for the golden head of each faithful artistic soul-in-peril.

A literary agent — whose job it is to do the rejecting as well as the acceptance when the manuscripts fly in over the electronic transom — can be quite sensitive to the wholesale depiction of his profession as a dark force of hostility. A part of what you see Maass doing here is defensive, indeed, and probably rightly so:

The heroes are the authors whose genius–or potential popularity–is overlooked. When they are recognized and then exploited by the profit-sniffing dogs of the Big Five it only proves all the more how unfair the system is. The narrative would include corruption, too, if there was any to be found.

And he’s ready — as always — with the logic that the hand-wringers hope will be overlooked:

The truth is that the industry more often than not does quickly recognize artistic merit and popular appeal. It doesn’t make any money unless it does. Gatekeepers like me don’t profit by keeping people out but only by ushering writers in.

Nothing like the footfall of reality out in the hallway, just when you were working up into such a good crying jag, huh?

Maass goes on to point out that the flailing and scorned artiste (I thought I’d add the “e” for  you, just to make it more wrenching) is playing a role that he or she would never concede lived in that big novel: a stereotype.

It’s odd to me that writers who eschew stereotypes embrace stereotypes in their understanding of their professional world. (Let’s discuss this further at the bar.)

Campari calls, indeed. A little spine. Get you right past the weepies and back to work.

McHenry knows:

We’re not dots in some big preordained paint-by-numbers image. It can be tempting to draw lines, and to name sinners and saints, but the world of writing and publishing isn’t really populated with heroes and villains.

The real story is always more complicated.

And Maass does, too. Ask your dire and dithering friends-in-literature to step outside and take that tired, sad-eyed sob story with them. It’s not yours. It’s theirs. He writes:

Why not write your own unique story, both on the page and in your career? That leads to better outcomes in both respects.