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.
Jeff, I feel your pain:) Rejection is so hard and can be very upsetting. But you have to pick yourself up and dust off and move forward. After a load of rejections (and nice ones) I decided to take my rejected manuscripts and self publish them. I have to say it was the best thing I’ve ever done for my career! I left my small publisher and cringe at the royalty checks I receive from them….CRINGE! Onward and Upward!!
From the reviews I’ve seen, so far, Tonya, it looks like you ‘dusted off’ pretty darn good.
Lots of great buzz and already selling overseas. Terrific!
Great post, Jeff. It’s always good to look at notable authors who’ve survived rejection. It gives a writer hope that there’s a light at the end of the long, dark, almost endless tunnel, doesn’t it? I’m with Tonya. If the horse bucks you, get back on and hold on tight!
thanks, Danica. Although it partly depends on whether — after being bucked off the horse — you land on your keester or your head. Ha.
Is it sad that I enjoy reading about successful author’s rejections? lol Yes, we need to keep it all in the right persepctive, don’t we?
Yes, Laurie. And you can pretty much feel the pain of those authors who received such nasty replies … some of which appear in that article. I think there’s a special place in hell for the agents / editors / publishers who employ meanness in their dealings with writers. And I say, ‘turn up the heat for them!”
Well said Jeff. I’m currently feeling the stings of rejection!
Sorry, Jen. When I say ‘I understand’ you can believe that I truly do.
Not sure what the best tonic is for writers receiving rejections. For one thing, we never know if the person (who rejected our ms) even knew what she/he was talking about.
I say, drink a cold beer (or glass of wine, if that’s your beverage), fire up your computer and start writing — whether it’s a new project or revising a current one.
Don’t let the B*****ds get you down!
Who could forget the rejection of the Beatles (true, they wrote music, not books) by Decca where the label executive said, “We don’t like their sound and besides, guitar music is on the way out.” How’s that for the ultimate laugh?
That’s a great one, Jillian, about the Beatles.
I remember one about Fred Astaire. The talent scout wrote, “can’t sing … but dances a little.”
Of course, he was correct that Fred couldn’t sing, but it never bothered the audience apparently.
Hey Jeff — great blog post! My favorite rejection was the scrawled message across my pretty query that said, “Sorry. Not for me.” 🙂
Well, that’s definitely a rejection, but at least it is not laced with nastiness, like some of the examples in the ’30 authors’ article.
Thanks for visiting today, Rebecca.
Jeff: that college thing. I asked my poetry writing professor (after winning a national award & publication!) about pursuing an MFA. He told me to get a job, get married, have children and get divorced, and then think about it. (He was a colleague of the same English professor who said John Grisham’s success is fine, as long as Grisham understands that he’s not writing fine literature.) The contest wins and publications make me feel like I must have something, but the rejections leave me thinking I don’t know what it is. I’ll keep looking for that universal sweet spot. I’m not so desperate for a big publisher that I would try the posthumous route.
Chris, that professor you spoke with was sexist and demeaning and petty to dismiss your aspirations with such a flippant manner. Not to mention RUDE.
Like I said in another reply, there’s a special place in Hell for people who seem to enjoy shredding the dreams of young writers.
I’ve always said that if I ever got to a place of prominence in publishing that I would do whatever i coudl to ENCOURAGE the young writers. No I don’t mean lie to them or inflate their talents … but to give them constructive feedback that they could use to build on. Not chop them off at the knees.
I, too, love the lists of famous folks who faced rejection. I figure if it happens, I’m in mighty good company, LOL. But I’m so flattered and smack-dabbed by the teaser at the end I can’t see straight. That’s just brilliant, and I can say with absolute dishonesty I’m not feeling any pressure at all, LMAO! Thank you for a stellar build up – I shall do my best to live up to it … or run fast failing. ;c)
As always, I enjoyed your post, Jeff.
Aw, Sarah, you’ll knock ’em dead next week … and you know it.
BTW, since I coined the phrase: “the world out of Ballance” you owe me a whole box of M&Ms when you make the bestseller list and get interviewed on national TV.
If I can use that phrase, I’ll send you that box! Peanut or plain? ;c)
It’s yours. It wouldn’t fit any of my promo.
M&M Peanuts … must be FRESH date.
Thanks, Jeff; you did your usual great job of passing along inspiring info with your own sense and humor. This was truly inspirational. Now, I need to get off my keester and mail some things back out to more places…and not just aim at the top, which I did, because I pretty much expected rejection. I will have to gear myself up to maybe getting accepted …accepted with payment, and not just be published in freebies or to be ‘test-marketed’…(love that one; it means: “You’re good and we can make some money off your words, but not enough to share with you!”).
Keep sending the reminders, as life has been pretty busy lately.
Always a pleasure!
Thanks for visiting again, Tonette. Yeah, I’ve had poems and articles published in places which ‘paid’ in what they called ‘contributor copies’. Translation = no cash.
But I’ve also won cash prizes in contests and that feels GREAT! Validation! Few validations are as certain and solid as MONEY … even when only $25 [uh … that’s in 1980s money, of course].
Staying busy can be good … but don’t get too busy to write.
Wow! Stuffed owls. Who knew?
Great blog, Jeff. Something all writers can relate to.
Rejections sting, that’s for sure. Unfortunately it is a necessary part of what we do, sadomasochists that we are. I like to view rejections as just a another brick in the road to publication. Keep laying those bricks down and eventually you’ll get to your destination.
Jenn, I love the imagery of rejections serving as pavers. That’s great to keep in mind — they’re a necessary part of the foundation or preparation for our ‘road’ to publication.
Thanks for that insight …and for visiting again today.
Good points, all. Rejection is a part of things but hopefully we can grow and get past it when things do work out for us 🙂
Definitely, Elaine. Also, hopefully we won’t carry the wounds in such a way that any of us wish to be harsh to others … just to rub their noses in the same grime we had to experience. I’m sorry to say I’ve known individuals who DID enjoy causing pain to others. I suspect there are some in the writing/publishing world.
I could say something here about BAD CONTEST JUDGES who have tossed my stories out on the curb for trash pickup … but that will have to wait on another blog. Have you ever experienced overtly hostile contest judges? The ones who go for the jugular … just for sport?
I finished one last week and have experienced three or four rejections already. To go along with that, after birthing a novel I experience a form of post-partum depression.
Yes, another glass of chardonnay would be nice, thanks.
Glad you could visit today, Susan.
Yeah, I have weird feelings after ‘finishing’ a novel ms. Of course, I almost immediately dive right back into revisions, so if I blinked too long, I might miss it. As long as they’re still manuscripts I don’t have a sense that they’re ever actually ‘complete’ and FINAL. Invariably, when re-reading, I can find something I want to add, or change, or improve.
But I definitely recall some strong feelings when each of my two co-authored non-fiction monographs were sent — final run-thru … after all the interrogatories were settled. Some brief elation, a sense of relief that the pressure would be off finally … but then a bit of emptiness. Is that post-partum? Possibly so.
Count me in with those who love the “famous authors repeatedly rejected” list. It reminds me I’m not alone and that perseverance is the key to success. Thankfully I never pressed too hard for feedback when I first started showing my stuff. I took silence to mean they didn’t like it (the literary equivalent of dating’s “He’s just not that into you.”)
As always, another great post, Jeff!
I still don’t know why I pushed so hard with that professor. I guess I thought she was holding back her praise (trying to keep from inflating my ego) — because I’d had some teachers in lower grades who thought I was brilliant … LOL.
It was quite a resounding crash to learn that this prof. thought I was mediocre.
BTW, this incident happened in 1969 … and the world was different then.
Another great post, Jeff! The information and encouragement go a long way with writers struggling to achieve their version of perfection — and recognition.
I’ve had my share of rejections, but I’ve been lucky in that they came back to me with concrete constructive criticism, with just enough praise to temper the “but”‘s and make them bearable. The nicest rejection I ever got was from an agent who said she had no intention of offering for it, but my submission was so well written she just couldn’t put it down. (She already represented another author with similar subject matter.) The best part was when she asked me to submit other material I’d written, as she’d like to see it.
So sometimes there’s that little bit of hope! It makes it easier to keep grinding along, and improving your craft. Just enough hope I keep telling myself, “One day, when I grow up to be a real writer . . . ” lol Love your personal style, Jeff. Thanks for sharing it!
One big plus for US — meaning those of us who communicate with each other via mailgroup or FB or blogs — is that we have become an informal mutual support network. The stereotypical distressed writer, grinding out words in isolation — with no friends and only estranged relatives — has none of the comaraderie or commiseration.
I’m watching “20/20” right now, Jeff; they are talking about the book “The Help” which is about to be released as a major motion picture and is #1 in paperbacks now…(it has been on the HB best sellers list for 112 weeks). The author,Kathryn Stockett, says she has over 40 rejection letters on it before she got it published.
Man, I have to buy more stamps!
Keep truckin’ , People!
I haven’t heard of that author or title, but more power to her that she succeeded so spectacularly … after 40 rejections.
Thanks for letting us know.
Glad you visited today, Tonette.
Great post, Jeff. You always have that continual cadence to your posts and I’m sure that it carries over in your novel writing. I’m wishing you the best in your career and I truly hope you one day get “the last laugh.”
I took a look at that list of authors rejected…..amazing.
Glad you stopped by, Renee. And thanks for the compliment.
Hope you’ll be able to visit TODAY’s post also.
[This one was from last month — LOL]