Before I published, I had this fantasy that somewhere, perhaps on the top floor of a glittering skyscraper in New York City, at the end of a long corridor lined with books and the portraits of famous writers, was a room in which stood a heavy oak table surrounded by high-backed leather chairs. In these chairs sat The People Who Knew Literature. Oh, how I believed in them. From the fetid pile of manuscripts (some stained with mysterious rusty-red marks, others with tear-blurred ink) these sages picked out sparkling gems, sure to become classics. They discerned the wheat amongst the chaff, the figure inherent in the uncut granite, the gleam of the diamond in the lump of coal.
Snort. Oh, how naive I was.
Now, I’m not saying that agents and editors and publishers aren’t astute folks who can, and often do, find promising new talent and develop it. I’m saying they’re not mystical sages; they’re people just like us — overworked, largely underpaid, nervous about the industry, unsure of themselves, subject to their own neuroses and blind spots, hoping to please their bosses, fumbling along as best they can.
Recently, the New York Times had an article about Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, TINKER. In what will doubtless become an iconic story, Mr. Harding’s novel was rejected early and often. He tells us about the rejection letters —
“They would lecture me about the pace of life today…It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’ ” he said, recalling the gist of the letters. “ ‘Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.’ ”
Well, it seems ‘they’ were wrong. They often are. TINKER was finally published by Bellevue, a tiny literary press, and he was reportedly paid $1,000 for it. Of course, things have changed a bit since the Pulitzer win –
Within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed with Mr. Harding late in 2009. A few days later the Guggenheim Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.
And that’s wonderful for Mr. Harding, although the truth is that most rejected novels won’t find a home, won’t go on to make best-of-the-year lists, and certainly won’t go on to win Pulitzer Prizes.
But, for me, what’s most important is what Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of GILEAD, and Mr. Harding’s teacher at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had to say:
“One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they don’t have to calculate the market,” Ms. Robinson said. “Now that I have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my students that they have to forget about “The Market” and concentrate on writing the very best book they can. Our job as writers is not to be editors or publishers — it’s to WRITE, and to write to the best of our abilities. Our job is to listen to the whisper in our ear, urging us to write a particular story, even if it’s not in fashion, even if there aren’t any vampires in it. There’s nothing pleasant about rejection, and although Mr. Harding says his early rejections were, “funny at the time and even funnier now” I don’t know too many writers who find rejection terribly amusing. It stings, it corrodes, it bruises, but it shouldn’t stop us.
Perhaps you think, “Well, easy for Harding and Robinson to be so cavalier about the market, after all, they’re winning prizes and are bestselling authors.” Sure. But they weren’t always. They were, like all of us, just ink-stained wretches toiling away in a little room surrounded by bits of paper. They became who they are by writing the books they believed in. And we can do the same. And even if we aren’t quite so festooned with prizes and praise and cash, can grow to the limits of our potential, which is all anyone can ask. What will happen to those books once they’re finished? Who knows… but in the writing of your soul’s book, your heart’s book, I suggest you will develop your integrity, discover your artistic vision and voice, as well as deepen your spiritual life and your relationship to the world. You might also go on and publish a book you’re truly proud of. Where’s the down side?
Now, stop reading this and get writing!