That’s the ten dollar question, I suspect.
Sure, maybe it’s just sour grapes. No one wants my book and I’m throwing a temper-tantrum. Boo-hoo and all that.
But c’mon. There must be a secret handshake, right? Some back room that I can get ushered into at some point? Look at all those books out there on the shelves. Do all of them have something no other book has? Are they all arriving published on their own merits?
But you can’t convince me that all those books–literary, serious books–manage to find their way into attentive agent or publisher hands without a little grease. I’m a pretty serious reader and there are hundreds of contemporary writers doing good work. I’m not talking about them. Jennifer Egan, Bradford Morrow, Sarah Braunstein, Paul Harding–fantastic writers with excellent books to their names. But what about the massive mid-list of writers most people haven’t heard of? What about those books that you pick up in the bookstore and wonder how in the world it happened. How in the world did these words get through the gatekeeper? How in the world did this project/novel/hullabaloo get picked over something else?
I’ve written about rejection before. Why again? Well, today I recieved, in the mail, what many writers dream of: a real rejection letter from a good-sized publishing house. NOT a form letter. How wonderful! The editorial assistant at Boink&Boff actually sat down to write a rejection instead of just stuffing my self-addressed-stamped-envelope with a note from the form-letter-bin. Here’s what it says (italics mine):
“Dear Mr. Knowles (nice way to start…a little formal, but that’s okay),
Thank you for sending along your novel (little glitch, I only sent a sample section, but I’m still on board), THE AURORA PROJECT. You have an ambitious, provocative idea here (Wahoo! Lovely! I agree! Should I keep reading? I think I should!). I was particularly impressed with the structure and wide scope of your book (Sweet! It’s a complex book and I’m so glad you saw the big picture!); your attempt to capture the essence of humanity as it evolves through time is inspired (fucking-A! Inspired! Looks like I’m sitting in the front row!).
However (oh, man…I knew it was too good to be true. Like a cheap vacation rental scam on Craig’s list), I feel that the execution of your idea fell a bit short (strange, because this is a novel, not a thesis-driven research paper, so there was no idea, only fiction, and because I sent along only about a sixth of the whole book); the descriptions and setting were somewhat underdeveloped (wait, wasn’t it just a couple sentences ago that this thing was inspired? Or was that just blowing smoke up my ass to prep me for the rejection? I’m a big boy. You’re allowed to tell me it isn’t a good fit for you and leave it at that…) and as a result, I did not feel rooted in the fantastical scenes (What fantastical scenes? Can you be specific? At this point, I’m starting to wonder if the sample pages were even read. And if they were read, did the reader realize that it wasn’t the whole novel? That it was samples from several different sections of the book? How could anyone feel rooted in a sample? Aren’t the samples, in this case, ‘inspired’, supposed to whet your appetite for more?). For these reasons, I’m afraid [your manuscript] isn’t quite right for us. Best of luck finding… yadda yadda.
So what’s the big deal, right? A rejection, just another one. I didn’t even expect an answer from this particular publisher. Just sent it along because, what the hell, worst they can say is no, right? I guess the big deal is that it’s hard to hear, as I have, over and over and over, that your manuscript is inspired or amazing or thought-provoking…only to be told “sorry, try somewhere else.”
I pick up books all the time that are not “inspired” or “thought-provoking.” I guess I’m just wondering what the magic word is? Does anyone know? Is it all blind luck? To be fair, perhaps this assistant just didn’t connect with the material. This isn’t really about her or one particular letter, but she’s the one who sparked the post, so I thought I’d see if I could find out who she was. It’s easy to find people these days. I did a little cyber-stalking (or, “a search on facebook”) and found my letter writer in under fifteen seconds. She seems to be quite nice, relatively young (I’d say mid-twenties, closer to twenty than thirty) went to a more prestigious school than I, probably got better grades, no doubt is smarter than me in many ways, and is most likely someone who loves books and has good friends and a fulfilling life. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m angry in any way, not at her at least. I’m sure we’d get along famously if we met each other at a writing conference.
I am frustrated, though. Frustrated that this book I really enjoyed writing (indeed, even as I wrote it, I knew it would be a tough book to sell, I wrote it only because I was jazzed by the whole strange idea) and that people routinely describe with adjectives like “inspired” has such a hard time getting past the gatekeepers.
Perhaps it’s simply a case of people trying to be too nice. Or a case of forgetting how to us the proper adjective. Let’s make a deal, okay? Next time you want to reject my novel, just keep it simple. “Not for us, thanks” will do fine. That’s all I need.
But would you like to see my new work? I’ve been working hard on it and I’m told that it’s inspired. I’d be happy to send you some sample pages. You’ll get back to me? Great, great…looking forward to hearing from you!