Recently a writer sent me a lovely article on the topic of rejection -- which, ironically, I rejected. The article got me thinking about this topic, however, for rejection has traditionally been a major aspect of the writing life.
I say "traditionally" for a reason. Rejection has always been a major part of the writing life in the past. Today, however, it seems to me that many writers are "rejecting rejection." After all, no one likes it. It hurts. In the past, we were always told that we just had to deal with it. Shrug it off, bear the wounds, be strong, move on, don't let it get to you, don't let it get you down.
I get the feeling, however, that many writers today feel that they shouldn't have to bear it, shrug it off, be brave, be strong, etc. -- but rather, that they shouldn't have to put up with rejection at all. And indeed, this message is being fed to us from a variety of sources. Why should you have to "grin and bear it" when there's a better way? The wrong model has changed, we're told. Now we can forge our own destinies, create our own luck, reach out to our own audience, and not face those cruel "slings and arrows" of outrageous editors.
This message is part of the driving force behind the huge surge in various forms of DIY publishing. As I note in the "news" section, below, a blogger recently calculated that a new Kindle book is published every five minutes. According to Bowker, more than 391,000 new self-published titles entered the marketplace in 2012, and the figure is rising every year (http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2013/pr_10092013.shtml).
Another popular method of looking at rejection is those articles that remind us that nearly every great author has experienced it. There used to be a site called "RejectionCollection.com" that collected some of the rejection letters received by great authors of the past; if I remember correctly, it also invited readers to contribute their own examples. (Sadly, this site seems to have disappeared, but you can find other good examples at http://www.literaryrejections.com/.) The message, of course, is that if editors rejected such authors as Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Anne Frank, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and -- well, just about any other famous author you can think of -- then you're in good company. Rejection really doesn't "mean" anything, because obviously editors can't recognize literary quality when they see it!
Again, nobody enjoys pain, and it has been said that nobody in their right mind actively seeks it out -- which is certainly what we've done, traditionally, as writers! So it might seem that bypassing the risk of rejection makes sense. Why endure misery and humiliation of there is an alternative? And so, today, thousands of writers are going directly for the alternative, without ever taking the chance of getting rejected. (In the old days, one tended to self-publish only after getting rejected a few times!) We like to think of this as a form of author empowerment. But... is it?
There's another quote worth considering here when we think about how pleasant it would be to avoid rejection. Friedrich Nietzshe tells us, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Rejection does not, in most cases, kill us. Does it, then, make us stronger? I believe that it does. Rejection has the power, more than any other factor in a writer's life, to make us stronger, better writers.
Here's how it used to work. You wrote a book. You sent it to a publisher (or an agent). The agent (or publisher) said "no." Depending on how you handle such things, you winced, wept, threw a tantrum, got drunk, burned the publisher in effigy... and then, you went on to rewrite your book and make it better. The reason you did this was because, in those bad old days, that was still the only viable way to get your book published. You had no alternatives. Vanity publishing, not so long ago, meant investing tens of thousands of dollars in a book that might as well be dumped into the Great Dismal Swamp. Self-publishing (not subsidy publishing) only became viable when it became possible to typeset a manuscript on a computer instead of paying $10 or more per page. So back then, if you really wanted to get published, your only real option was to do better.
Sometimes, after reworking a book several times and getting still more rejections, you might decide that this particular book just wasn't "fixable," and you'd move on to write another -- hopefully better -- book. Old-time writing statistics often pointed out that very few authors ever sold the first book they ever wrote (and quite a few never sold the second either). Sometimes, once an author became famous, he'd dredge up one of those old manuscripts and get it published -- and quite often, it would be painfully apparent why it never was (and never should have been) published in the first place.
Conversely, other writers simply gave up and quit upon receiving that painful rejection letter. If one regards perseverance as a positive trait -- or, at the very least, a useful trait for a writer -- rejection was a means of weeding out those authors who didn't have it. Still other writers remained convinced that their work was perfect, flawless, and in no need of improvement, and that rejection simply indicated that editors were short-sighted, stupid and biased. These authors would continue to submit the same book, with, predictably, the same results.
Here's my big worry about "rejecting rejection:" If we have no incentive to improve, why should we? We don't like being told, today, that our work needs work. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are in the midst of a social trend that believes everyone should be rewarded equally for effort, regardless of outcome. The reward of publishing, many feel, is "owed" to us simply for writing a book at all, not as a prize for writing a "good" book. But if no one tells us "this isn't good enough yet," how do we even know we need to do better? There are a thousand explanations for why a book doesn't sell today, so, if we wish, we don't even have to entertain the notion that it's simply because the book isn't good enough.
There's a flip side to the fact that every great writer has experienced rejection: The realization that every great writer has experienced rejection! Rejection has been part of the process of that writer's road to greatness. Every great writer has experienced it, dealt with it, moved on from it, and managed to become a great writer. Today, I fear, too many writers want the gain without the pain -- and too many may never understand why it isn't working out that way.
There are, I believe, two key points that today's writer needs to consider. The first is to pay attention to the source of the messages we receive as writers. The loudest voices proclaiming that we don't need to experience rejection, that there is a "new" publishing model, and that we can all be empowered self-publishers, are those who profit from that model. They are the owners of those companies that take our money to publish our books -- and they always win, no matter how many authors ultimately lose.
The second is to consider, for a moment, the flip side of rejection. That flip side is "acceptance." In the past, getting our work "accepted" was always the writer's primary goal. Rejection was the risk we took in pursuit of that goal. If we aren't willing to take that chance, then we lose the chance we might have had for the greatest reward of all: Becoming one of those authors who end up on those rejection collection lists as examples of how "greatness" can, for a time, be overlooked -- but how it triumphs in the end.
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