As part of its observance of Labor Day, the New York Times (Sept. 6, 2010) included an Op-Ed piece by John Grishom. In his essay, the lawyer-turned novelist recounted his many and varied jobs, at last coming to rest on his work as a writer. His first book, A Time To Kill, took three years to complete and didn’t sell—even though he was so committed to it that he sold it out of the trunk of his car. He kept his day job, but he also kept writing: “I had never worked so hard in my life nor imagined that writing could be such an effort.” He concluded his essay: “Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had—but it’s worth it.”
The journey to publication can be long. Take, for example, writers who had to combat a system that is both maddening and heartbreaking before achieving success:
• Dune —by Frank Herbert was rejected 23 times before finding a small publisher. It was then made in to a movie, starring Sting, and was followed by 5 sequels.
• A Wrinkle in Time—by Madeleine L’Engle was rejected 26 times before being accepted by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
• Gone With The Wind—by Margaret Mitchell was rejected by 38 publishers.
• Dubliners—by James Joyce received 22 rejections.
• Chicken Soup for the Soul—by Jack Canfield and Mark V. Hansen was turned down 140 times before finding a publisher. They’ve since sold more than 80 million copies.
The errors of judgment aren’t limited to publishing: HBO turned down Mad Men before it went on to critical and popular acclaim on AMC. In the world of product placement: Mars/M&M turned down the opportunity to be the candy that attracted the little alien in the 1982 blockbuster E.T. By the way, when Hershey’s stepped in with Reese’s Pieces, sales of their candies skyrocketed.
Under the umbrella of “it’s just business” people in power apparently give themselves license to commit any number of crimes against the world and one another.
I once attended a workshop that featured a panel discussion by some poetry editors. One editor actually had the audacity to say that—even though it might take his publication months to get back to a writer—he made it a policy to turn down a submission if a writer dared to contact him to ask for the status on a piece! Oh, and by the way, they wouldn’t accept simultaneous submissions either. Imagine the small, mean spirit of that man. His bitterness. His pathetic grasping for control. At the time, I was so shaken by his comments that I went mute. Today, I wish I could remember his name (or even his publication) because I’d now be able to tell him that it’s not o.k. to take your greed, or unhappy childhood, or bad marriage, or poor self-esteem out on someone else.
It’s gut-wrenching to fight back, but the alternative for the artist is even worse. If we don’t fight, we run the danger of actually believing the people who have set themselves up as gatekeepers. If we internalize the destructiveness of those messages then we turn on ourselves. Case in point: John Kennedy Toole. He lost hope of ever being published after Simon and Schuster turned down his manuscript. He committed suicide. His book, A Confederacy of Dunces, was published posthumously. It won the Pulitzer—and it’s considered a comic masterpiece.
I don’t pretend to understand how a writer can hear ‘no’ 140 times and keep going. Could 140 publishers be wrong? If they all say ‘no’ then shouldn’t that tell the writer something? But, oh that sweet victory, when a writer succeeds and the gatekeepers have to admit they were wrong. More than that, they have to admit that they lost a chance to make money/win notoriety for themselves, which, in the end, is all that drives them.
The writer’s work doesn’t end when the manuscript is accepted for publication. It actually morphs into marketing as she struggles to garner attention with readers and reviewers. The journey can be treacherous and may involve as much luck as anything else: Imagine a book actually gets reviewed by a major publication, but the reviewer chosen for the job doesn’t like it. Imagine a book making its debut the same week that a much-awaited blockbuster comes out. Imagine, too, a major world event that makes any book a far second in the minds of the public. Better to buy a lottery ticket and leave the suffering to someone else.
Because suffering is very much a factor. But I want to take a stand against needless suffering on this Labor Day.
A therapist I know insists that rage turned inward is a fantastically destructive force. “Homicide is better than suicide any day,” she said.
I’m making that my new mantra—in celebration of Labor Day and all the labor it takes to make a work of art.