June 17, 2004 2:47 AM   Subscribe

Why does no-one recognise my genius? A guide for aspiring authors on how not to deal with rejection slips.
posted by etc (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I totally appreciate the spirit of this, and there certainly are a lot of blowhards out there who should stop wasting paper on their derivative slouching toward genius.

But the opposite extreme is also a problem. If you take everyone's suggestions and criticism really seriously, you're bound to learn a thing or two, sure, but eventually you will have welcomed so many editorial voices into the creative cave that you don't know who you are anymore. If you ever did have anything special to say, if you ever had happened on anything new worth developing, you'll lose it for sure if you listen too intently to editors, teachers, and critics, all of whom want you to write exactly like the pros who are at the top of their games *today* (probably because that's what they know they can sell).

To some extent, you have to trust your instincts and write your own shit in your own back-assward way. If the result isn't publishable, it isn't publishable. Publishing isn't everything, after all. If all you want is to get your name in ink, there are many easier ways to do it than literary writing. But as far as literary writing goes, history is full of greats who got published only after decades of rejection.

Since it doesn't take decades to respond to criticism and start writing formulaic "New Yorker Fiction," I'm guessing these longs-suffering greats stuck to their guns, by choice, until they found the editorial and publishing support they needed to make a go of it, someone willing to put work and money behind their efforts. That's not an easy game, to be sure.

But what's really the more rewarding process, in the end? Sacrificing everything that comes naturally in order to bend toward success? Or suffering in obscurity and uncertainty as long as it takes to get somewhere on your own terms? The writing life is a tough one. Especially at the bottom. No fucking shit.
posted by scarabic at 3:02 AM on June 17, 2004

Great post, btw. That guide is full of pragmatic, behind the scenes perspective, and presented in a very layperson kind of way. As with many things, the industry insiders and the people on the outside trying to get in just don't speak the same language at all. Hilarious tantrums, too. The WCW bit kills me.
posted by scarabic at 3:14 AM on June 17, 2004

This is just to say
we have taken some plums
we found in our mailbox.
You were hoping they would be
yours. Forgive us,
others seemed
or colder
more bold
or whatever.

I think I'd be murderously angry (not suicidal) if I ever received such a smarmy form rejection letter. Having worked in publishing, it's always better to be direct, brief and professional, this sort of thing is ridiculous. Excellent post.
posted by psmealey at 4:18 AM on June 17, 2004

Sure it's better to be direct, brief, and professional, but any writer that gets bent out of shape at their rejection letters probably shouldn't be trying to play the writing game. Certainly not with the current rules, which weren't created to treat egos kindly.

This piece is exactly right: the only thing we really need to know from a publishing house is if they will take our book. Getting murderously angry over the content of a rejection letter is a waste of good energy. If I spent time agonizing over all of my rejections (3 in one day a few weeks back. Beat that!) I'd never get any writing done.

The central points of the article -- that rejection isn't about your worth as a person, that the publishing industry is a business that needs saleable product -- are things a good many writers forget. This was a nice reminder.
posted by amery at 5:38 AM on June 17, 2004

I find that submitting stuff for publication is a full time job all it's own. If I already have a job, and I'm trying to write, something's gotta give. So, where can I hire a publicist? Someone who will identify target markets, send the stuff out, and file the endless rejection letters...
posted by ewkpates at 6:01 AM on June 17, 2004

Ahh, rejection. Sweet rejection. Yes, I've had my share. From syndicates rejecting my column to publishers rejecting my book to many, many magazines rejecting my stories. I'm one of those perverse folks who saves 'em. Never took one personally, though, or tried to read anything into them other than "your writing's not good enough", which is true. I just keep adding "...yet", and try again.

Best reject? The book. Sent query letter to publisher; they expressed interest. Sent sample chapters; they were still interested. Sent full manuscript; they gave it a healthy go-over, and ultimately rejected it. Mostly it was a genre issue - it fell between young adult and adult categorization, and I'm not sure how it could be rewritten to fit just one, so there's really no market for it. Pity, it was a great idea.

Worst reject? The column. Sent query letter; syndicate expressed interest. Sent samples of columns; syndicate said they'd be interested if there were some sort of accompanying illustrations. Interviewed graphic artists at local art college, had a great one mock up samples based on columns and sent them off; syndicate wrote a tersely worded response saying they already rejected the column and weren't looking for illustrated columns.

I've had some odd ones, too. One standard reject letter that was folded about a dozen times, another about the size of a Chinese fortune cookie... uh, fortune, another indecipherable scrawl across my manuscript.

A simple "no, thanks" is good enough for me.

psmealey, have you read the William Carlos Williams poem that's riffing?

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

That's a rejection letter in the spirit of the genre, and any aspiring poet shouldn't have the same reaction a prose writer might have. Real poets are weird, and should appreciate a weird response like that.

posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:27 AM on June 17, 2004

I'm in the position of being an oft-rejected writer, but also an editor of a small literary journal. I only save the 'good' rejections - hand-written notes from editors who have either 'almost' taken a story and offered good advice (some, even, from big mags! so close!) or hated something so much that they felt the need to tell me in detail how much they didn't like my submission :) I keep these in mind when I get stuff for my own magazine that's not what we're looking for and try to be cool when sending out rejections. The problem is that the more stuff you get, the more you have to reject -- eventually it gets to the point where it's very hard not to send out anything but a form letter.
posted by drobot at 6:47 AM on June 17, 2004

Be thick skinned. They'll weep when you're rich-n-famous ;-)

“Well, I agree with you that you have to practice,” Bob said, “and so I practice too, but not the way you seem to. I read magazines I want to write for, and-”

“The pulps,” Clyde put in.

“Yeah, the pulps. A lot of writers get their start there. They don’t pay much, a half-cent a word, and so you have to stretch your yarns to the breaking point. You take a hundred words to say twenty-five. But that’s okay with me. I’m verbose. I’ve got plenty of words.”

“Do you try to write like the guys who write for the magazines you write for?” Clyde asked.

“Hell, no,” Bob was emphatic about that. “I let them try to write like me.”

Clyde nodded with appreciation.

“I thought you had to practice a style,” I said.

“In a way,” Bob agreed. “After I read a lot of issues of a magazine to get the feel of what the readers want and of the things the editors look for, I sit down at my old trusty typewriter and bang out a yarn I think fits the pattern. Then I send ‘em off. Some of ‘em come back. If they’ve been the rounds, I throw ‘em in an old trunk I have. Someday, they’ll sell, and I’ll be rich and famous.”

-Robert E Howard talking to Clyde Smith in Novalyne Price Ellis's One Who Walked Alone.
posted by Shane at 7:06 AM on June 17, 2004

Worst rejection was when I sent someone a piece of nonfiction and they wrote back, "Thanks but we don't take short shotroe" and I was like, "What?" and she said, "We don't take short stories," and I explained that it wasn't. Well, it didn't fit their needs anyway, she wrote. I e-mailed back, "Are you on crack?" (I didn't have much respect for the magazine in question, which will go unnamed but it was called Heeb).

Some rejections feel good, like a friendly form letter from the Atlantic Monthly that you just want to treasure and give to your grandkids. But I hate it when people just e-mail back, "Thanks but I'll pass," one sentence, like you are some Scientologist trying to hand out personality tests. "I'll pass?!" There's something about that convention that rubs me the wrong way. What do you think?
posted by inksyndicate at 7:17 AM on June 17, 2004

When I first read the plum poem, my first thought was that the publisher was trying to tell the rejected writer that s/he had plagiarized the piece.

Good link, and I really hope the people over at the rejection collection site read it, as it would do them a world of good.
posted by orange swan at 7:33 AM on June 17, 2004

OK, but, seriously -- why does nobody recognize my genius?
posted by waldo at 9:08 AM on June 17, 2004

A brief caution to genius.


"Nobody gets genius" (say the geniuses),

"except other geniuses"

and what



is opaque to anyone not

(a genius).




a genius


a poet - of my family - said :

"I am a genius and represent the genetic pinnacle of the family line."

Silence, then my mother :

"You'd better go now. Leave. You've really insulted my children. and you've insulted me."

The genius left, turkey


Nearly two decades since I last saw him then,

I heard talk :

the genius was angry at me, reasons

obscure to my non


which couldn't bridge the gulf



His wife, a doll - maker

dolls like people,

But more real -

in their heads,

almost brains

guiding wires are concealed ;

and they're famous (she not dead)

but reclusive,

to contain

photo-optic nerve straying,

spies you strolling

caught now, years unroll,

pass away,

you'll remain

doll in case

pressed in glass

built to last,

true to soul.

to the speck,

and the day.


But this skill did not leap


grown bursting

from godhead.


a ragged old crone,

from an alley,

now a doll, and dead

sallied forth, dragged it

from dream

cut it loose,

toothless, poison barbed

screaming :

"You'll never be a filmmaker,

You'll never be an illustrator!

You don't know what you can be,

You silly little


You're just pissing

your life


That's what you are -




I had never met the woman before,

says the doll - maker.

She had no way of knowing who the hell I


I was

unhinged by her


Soon after, I found my art or

it found

posted by troutfishing at 9:31 AM on June 17, 2004

god that williams reject letter is terrible.
okay, having read the original link, I see that it was for a poetry parody contest, so it's actually completely appropriate. I thought it was for a poetry journal in general, in which case it would have been seriously irritating.

ghost, I can't imagine any aspiring writer would be unfamiliar with that poem, and I also totally disagree with the idea that 'real poets' would appreciate it. I think psmealey's use of the word "smarmy" captures pretty well how it came across to me (although, as I say, as a reply to a poetry parody project it is cute).

It's pretty weird how people take things, although I admit that in the immediate aftermath of a rejection slip arriving, it is easy to read all sorts of insane things into a couple of indifferent sentences. It's just that some of these people never seem to get to the point where they realize that the letter is not a personal attack (they note still feeling hurt years later, etc).

Really, anything that isn't acceptance is the same - wasn't good enough, wasn't as good in some way as loads of crap out there that you thought you were at least as good as... But looking back over things that were once rejected, the truth is that often they made the right choice - work was needed. Sure, they miss the mark sometimes, but you probably miss it more than you think you do.
posted by mdn at 10:25 AM on June 17, 2004

We are overlooking the fact that there is simply no way any decent magazine or journal could accept every piece it receives that is good enough to be published in it. There just isn't space for it all.

Having said that, there is a special circle of Hell reserved for people who send "clever" rejection letters; it's right next to the circle of Hell reserved for people who feel that the world doesn't recognize their genius.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:42 AM on June 17, 2004

thanks, fisher person...
posted by ewkpates at 10:47 AM on June 17, 2004

I love this person, who, undaunted by her nasty rejection, is going to pick herself up, try again, and resubmit elsewhere in the hope of a nicer rejection:

"I’ve heard it suggested that you send a THANK YOU note to publishers who reject you, for takiong the time to look at your manuscript! I thought about it, I really did…then decided, no way, with this one!! I took another critical look at the manuscript, and sent it anong to the next publisher — who, hopefully, will reject me gently"

Now that's ambition!
posted by scarabic at 11:26 AM on June 17, 2004

"Nobody gets genius" (say the geniuses),

"except other geniuses"

and what



So modern poetry is just prose with a lot of line breaks thrown in?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:42 AM on June 17, 2004

ewkpates - You're welcome. It's a true story, and that picture comes from a photo of a real doll.

DevilsAdvocate :

"....sallied forth, dragged it

from dream

cut it loose,

toothless, poison barbed

screaming :

"You'll never be a Poetry critic!...." "
posted by troutfishing at 12:27 PM on June 17, 2004

I took a look at the actual site, and the crazy soreheads are by far in the minority of the folks who submitted their rejection letters.

Most of the authors' comments are along the lines of "This person was really thoughtful" or "How goofy it is that this rejection letter is full of typos" (especially the one from the "magazine of poop culture").
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:30 PM on June 17, 2004

Just in case i didn't make it sufficiently clear :

That picture I posted is a doll

about 18 inches high.

Her face is nylon.

She was once a human being too.
posted by troutfishing at 10:31 PM on June 17, 2004

Please understand.
posted by troutfishing at 10:34 PM on June 17, 2004

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