Maybe We’ll Get the Last Laugh After All
By Jeff Salter
Let’s narrow the scope of ‘rejection’.
Many of us have endured rejection such as being turned down for a date, not making the cut in drama tryouts, or being the last kid chosen when teams are picked. Actually, rejection is whenever you’re excluded from just about any activity or experience that you desired. And those can be powerful hurts.
But in the limited space here, I’m focusing on literary rejection.
The tragedy of John Kennedy Toole
Let’s start with a detailed example which I’m more familiar with than many because my family friend, the best-selling author Walker Percy, played a role in the drama. In 1969 John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, some time after writing the manuscript, A Confederacy of Dunces. It had apparently been turned down by whoever he queried but his mother persisted in trying to get it published posthumously. That effort landed her at the office door of Walker Percy, who was at the time a visiting professor at Loyola University (New Orleans). Percy reluctantly agreed to read it and was sufficiently impressed to show it to the editors at LSU press, which published it in 1980 and made a bundle.
Many years ago, I read this book and enjoyed it, but I did not think it was the masterpiece which many reviewers made it out to be. I believe some literary critics love the drama and tragedy of a posthumous book and publishers know that buzz will stimulate sales. I mention Toole merely as a modern day example of the extreme ways some authors have – wrongly – handled rejection. It’s never bad enough to end your own life. That is NOT getting the ‘last laugh.’
Famous authors got their share of rejections
I love reading lists of famous authors who recount the rejections they experienced before finally finding publication. It’s an inspiration to the rest of us and it shows that, indeed, sometimes the writer can have the last laugh.
Of the 30 listed in this article:
the ones I find most satisfying are William Golding, John le Carre, Joseph Heller, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling — partly because I’ve read all those books mentioned and am very thankful those authors did not give in to the rejection. Other readers of today’s blog will recognize names like Meg Cabot, Judy Blume, and Margaret Mitchell.
The recent issue of Parade magazine has a short interview with John Grisham, who has carefully kept about 30 of his rejection letters. Surely, Grisham got the ‘last laugh’ by selling 250 million copies of his books.
Yeah, I’m familiar with the ‘R’ word
As a college freshman, I was enamored with my own poetry and asked one of my literature professors to read a few poems. She did … and gave them back. Of course, I wanted more.
“What did you think about them?” I asked.
“They were all right,” she replied.
Those were not the words I wanted to hear. I was convinced my verse bordered on genius and longed to hear such an admission from this Ph.D. So I pressed.
“When you’re older and have more life experiences to draw upon, your poetry will probably be better,” she intoned.
Anybody but me would have understood what she was saying by what she didn’t say. But not me. I pressed further.
Finally she said, flatly: “They’re like stuffed owls.”
That simile threw me: I had no acquaintance with owls (alive or stuffed). I couldn’t assume that was a criticism … so it might be a compliment. I pressed for an explanation.
Finally she sighed heavily and explained: a stuffed owl is simply an ornamental display (of questionable taste) … but what’s the point in having one?
That’s when I realized she thought my poems were immature garbage, with only a sliver of possibility that growing old might give me more stuff to poeticize about. Small comfort.
One thing I learned from that experience is not to press so hard. As difficult as it is to leave things hanging, maybe you’re better not hearing what they don’t want to tell you anyway.
On the flip side
The flip side of rejection is validation. And don’t we love that? It comes in the form of contest wins (or finals), publication, and readers who really seem to connect to our writing.
I was fortunate to have early validation: while still in high school I won a prize in the Deep South Writers and Artists Conference. It was the first of many contests awards for my writing. Each one of these probably soothed the pain of a dozen rejections (whatever their form).
And thank goodness for such external validation.
Through publication, my poetry and non-fiction has been validated. But my novel manuscripts – for the moment – still languish. That ‘last laugh’ eludes me.
My Guest Fox for July, the unpredictable Sarah Ballance, will be here on Thursday the 21st! It may have something to do with surviving the heat of bad reviews … or not. You’ll want to stop by just to see what’s Sarah’s been into … in her World out of Ballance.