Huge deals and fairytales are sexy anomalies – almost all writers face setbacks, they’re an important part of the creative process
If there’s any universal truth, it’s that rejection happens to all of us at some point – especially in publishing. Most writers have entertained at least one 3am fantasy about an editor coming crawling back. Even Animal Farm was rejected by Faber & Faber, a decision now (understandably) regretted.
Orwell’s rejection is just one of many that have made their way into legend. Extravagant rejections of authors, from JK Rowling to Vladimir Nabokov, fascinate all of us. We like to remember that geniuses are fallible, and that nobody gets it right every time. But apart from these famous stories, we don’t talk about the everyday experience of rejection in the arts, and its role in the creative process. By venerating these big stories of rejection we make rejection itself feel remarkable, when it’s actually the norm.
We tend to focus instead on the narrative of overnight success and the glamour of fully formed genius. But huge deals and fairytales are sexy anomalies. Maybe we just don’t want to acknowledge that the process of creating good art is full of mistakes and, frankly, often tedious. We love shiny new things, speedy trajectories from zero to hero. Knotty, dreary process we love less.
But in publishing, everybody has been rejected – manuscripts in the drawer are our skeletons in the closet. We just don’t talk about it, for risk of seeming damaged goods. There’s real vulnerability to these conversations when we do broach it, author to author. It can feel like those early rejections are the barometer by which our worth is measured, any later success an accident rather than a byproduct of processing, improving, trying.
“Almost all other artforms acknowledge a long period of learning before anything is ready to be seen by the world – nobody really talks about this with writing,” says fellow debut novelist Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory. “I have two novels that didn’t make it. Ultimately, the industry was right to reject them – I wasn’t ready. But I know that I didn’t waste my time on them, that they were my apprenticeship.”
Could we start reframing rejection as something necessary, even desirable – not shameful, but an important step on the artistic journey? Rejection doesn’t automatically mean falling short; it can mean that risks are being taken, that you’re innovating. At the very least, it means that you’re trying. We need to be transparent about the work, about how 99% of the time it’s a thick skin that does more for artists than bolt-from-the-blue talent. And also about the toll it can take on you.
For years I didn’t talk about my own rejection, putting up the front that every aspiring writer does. But I was steadily getting rejected from every creative writing MFA (master of fine arts) I applied to, and then by dozens of agents. When I did get an agent, it was time for my first book (still unpublished) to be rejected unanimously by publishers, then rejected again by even more publishers a while later. When my next novel went on submission I spent a lot of time having panic attacks in office toilets – until a first offer, miraculously, came through. This kind of trajectory is normal. It’s often much worse. I just didn’t know.
During that time I craved normal stories of rejection. I wanted to know about the unseen work, not the eight-figure deals and one-hour pre-empts. I didn’t want to know about the breathless JK Rowling stuff either. I wanted to know whether it was possible to make some kind of living as an artist without having a breakdown. I wanted to know about the capacity of a person to just keep going even when every response is a no.
When I’m asked now if my first novel – my real first novel, sort of – might be published, I say no. I can see how it was still the work of someone finding their way. Those rejections gave me resilience. They were what I needed to allow me to write something better, still encourage me to write something better. With accepting rejection we find the space to do that. We realise that most others in the arts are in the same place. And maybe we’d be a little kinder and patient with ourselves and others, knowing this.