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“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden
Some years ago, a friend then working at Grove Press admitted quite astonished that he had earned more editing a novel by Dennis Cooper than Cooper had earned writing it. Granted, Grove by then publishing books on antique doilies, was a mere hollow shell of its former glorious self.
Over beer at the Cedar Tavern, he patted me on the back, admitting how ashamed he was while urging me to not let it dishearten me. To keep writing. Which was a little like recommending I keep breathing. But his heart was in the right place. It is hopeless but don’t give up hope. Camus, Kafka, Alan Watts; there are many who could embrace this dilemma as indicative of some higher truth or cosmic smirk – at least in their [mostly published] writing.
Auden was right, a writer can make more teaching writing than actually writing. So that writers end up teaching other would-be writers, sometimes so well, that these students pluck the few opportunities that may have been hanging there like ripe pears for their own plucking. But perhaps by then we’ve become convinced by the capital machinations of the “appropriation of labor value by capital,” that instructs our society to believe that our sacrifice is/was noble. As Peter Lamborn Wilson noted, all creativity must fester in the shadow of the “Ugly Spirit of Productive Capitalism.”
It is made clear that patience is a virtue defined by the resilience of the writer’s soul. We are told by those guarding the gates that we must earn “our rightful place alongside the many writers who spent their lives in obscurity, some discovered and some erased by time.” [“The New Author-Publisher Mentality,” Andres Gomez, Medium]
Some keep in our breast pockets tattered articles about how Kerouac carried his unpublished On the Road and Dharma Bums manuscripts around with him for 7 years, pulling them out the way a Christian might produce a folded, typed-up bit of the Psalms to offer strength in dire times. By the time publication fame was finally bestowed upon Kerouac he had already drunk his way into forgetting how one should act around praise, fame, media attention. Down so long it looks like up to me or some other song.
Many of us also save our rejection slips. Imagine saving the recorded sounds of every time you knocked on an unanswered door. We do so:
1. to try to glean extra meaning and direction from their terse texts [so that when they use appeasing terms like “regret” or “sorry” or “unfortunately” they are actually encouraging you to submit again];
2. to know who to get revenge on when we can hoist that box to triumphantly pour this bloody tickertape out the winning window on an I-told-you-so day when your or my novel is published;
3. to wallow in a self-satisfying, self-pitying, self-fulfilling prophecy of failure as evidence of your avant-garde brilliance.
I still have boxes full of what I describe as “charming” rejection slips as evidence of a not-all-that-legendary addiction. After all, I’ve never been victimized by sinister forces and my suffering is not cinematic – no beatings, no stalking, no wrongful imprisonment, no TV movie. Just a grueling run of rejections bound to some unseen algorithm that factors in the romantic necessity of suffering – which no one in general society is impressed or DEpressed by.
And we – or at least I – have grown nostalgic for those olden days when you’d get your SASE back with a rejection slip hand-signed by an editor with an actual name and sometimes a personal note or maybe even a hint of encouragement… How funked up to engage in nostalgic historic revisionism, transforming these old analogue rejection slips into missives of superior depth and warmth compared to today’s cold-hearted, software-generated rejection blips in an email or your Submittable inbox. Your rejectors no longer have faces, attitude or bad handwriting. They are just “The Editors.” And sometimes maybe not even.
And we all of course know of the retrospective honors bestowed upon artists and writers who are suddenly [re]discovered after their deaths, in fact, often BY the news of their deaths. That “Oh yea, her” reflex. High honors for a dead scrivener that also doubles to assuage the guilt of those who performed all that clueless rejecting, ignoring and forgetting.
Lesson 1: Do not ever analyze the existential question: How many times can one hear “NO” and still know how to spell “YES”?
Lesson 2: Do NOT EVER call agents or editors, do not question the rejection, do not come back with a snarky email, clever rejoinder or admirable or indignant statement in your own defense. Unless you want to include “digging your own grave” on your CV.
I have done a cursory analysis [Fig. 1.2] of my past 5 years of submissions, a period of heightened activity, submitting to publishers, magazines and agents, gaining inner strength and further inspiration from the Olympian submission prolificness of poet Lynn Lifshin [RIP 1942-2019], who we long ago would disparage as too crass, persistent, and prolific. Only to discover that, if talented, this is today’s route for those not born into connected families.
What I discovered: 69% of my work is rejected, while another 18% is vanity published, which must be accompanied by an asterisk. This leaves 13% published legitimately, with only 2% receiving remuneration.
I have also done a very quick accounting of my rejections by project [Fig. 1.3] for the past 4 years. It pains me to remember that I’ve been getting rejected since I was 17 and that was during the Vietnam War. And, like casualty figures from that war, the picture is not pretty.
Although I’m fairly confident about my latest novel [green bar left] Radio Activity Kills, this think-positive attempt of mind over matter has yet to bear fruit. And, in the few years I’ve been flailing it about, it has been rejected by 101± agents and editors. [Some excerpts have, however, been published.]
Ocean Groove, my most conventional novel, which must give it extra allure, has not proven to be a formula for success [a formula that I know doesn’t exist anyway].
Beer Mystic is my first real completed novel that I felt deserved more. [My 250-page Greyhound Bus version of Homer’s Odyssey, written at age 18, does not count.] Beer Mystic has undergone more alterations than most top body-alteration vlogger-influencers. Despite rewrites, edits, cuts, and enhancements, it has been rejected 50+ times in its latest life cycle and 115+ times in earlier versions. This doesn’t even cover conventional paper rejection slips, which I don’t even dare count.
No Kids, my anthology of stories by creatives who did not have kids, would appear to fulfill key facets of a popular nonfiction genre, but, alas, it does not include A-list stars such as Oprah or Jennifer Aniston. My new short story collection The Confusion Spandex, is just beginning to make the rounds while my individual short stories, despite some anomalous successes, have racked up over 500 rejections in the past 8 years or so.
Writers, of course, have choices: 1. be a writer, have queries ignored, writing unpaid and ultimately starve or 2. work at something else: cabbie, insurance adjuster, corporate spokesman, migrant laborer, backhoe operator, or 3. hobnob copiously, flatter effusively, network relentlessly or 4. join academia, teach writing, write clickbait how-to articles.
Ultimately, we must own our rejection, transform it into a signal that something greater is amiss in our culture. We writers, it seems, can also learn from hamsters who snuggle up quite contentedly in mounds of shredded newspaper; we must learn to nest in piles of our own rejection slips and somehow effectively grab hold of the levers and buttons that control the means of writerly production – and I don’t mean self-publishing on Amazon either.
bart plantenga is the author of the novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, a short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & a novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam.
Copyright 2020 bart plantenga