Man of Constant Sorrow

Most of the writers I know who are either barely published (like myself) or as yet entirely unpublished live in mortal terror of two possibilities. First, that no-one out there will like their work and their masterpiece will never find the home it deserves, and second, that their work isn’t any good at all and their work will never find a home at all. I alternate between one fear and the other with occasional confident bursts that border on arrogance. As I see things at the moment, there are two options open. We can persevere, if only slowly like myself, and continue to send our typescripts* to journals and agents and publishers. The other option is to self-publish. I respect this option, but rarely will I support it with my dollars. It’s not that I believe there is no such thing as a good self-published book, or that there are no decent writers self-publishing. I’m sure there are many. What I do know is I will only be able to read so many books in my life, and I choose those with care according to a set of standards that, while perhaps not unique, are still my own. One is that the book must have first passed through the gauntlet of a professional editor’s red pen. Publishing is a business, and editors are human beings, so obviously their opinions are fallible and their motives for selecting a book not always purely artistic or aesthetic. Commerce enters in. But still, somebody else out there, someone with experience and judgement, someone other than the the author him or herself, has declared that not only is the book worth their time, but they feel it is worth mine as well, and are willing lay down the cost of printing to back up that opinion. It is imperfect at best, but still it is something.

Despite how badly and (it seems recently) how often the system can fail, it pains me to see some self-published authors consumed by their anger. It’s hard work to self-publish. Writers must not only be writers, they must be businessmen and designers and promoters and salesmen.** It’s also hard, and I know this from experience, to have your work rejected. The rejections are not personal, but writers often have difficulty separating themselves from their work. Having a story or a poem or a novel rejected, especially if it happens repeatedly, can feel very much like the editors are rejecting you personally. It can be disheartening. Trust me, I understand.

To cope, I think writers must consider two things. First, that agents and editors are human beings doing a job. Unless you’ve done something incredibly rude or stupid to piss them off, they aren’t out to get you, and most likely have no opinion of you personally at all. In fact, even if you did do something rude or stupid, they probably still aren’t out to get you. You just won’t be able to have any useful dealings with them. After all, while there are certainly assholes out there, most people won’t act liked jerks until you give them a reason to. Not everyone’s tastes are the same, and not everyone will enjoy your work. Get over it, and look for an agent or an editor who does, and be sure to do it politely. Second, and this is the moment we all live in fear of, a writer must consider that maybe his work just isn’t good enough. I know that it’s fashionable to behave as though we are all in this together, as though taste is all that varies and all writers are created equal. It simply isn’t so. There is some horrible writing out there, and you might be one of the folks shopping it around. I might be one of them too. I can’t tell you how many times, with panic in my heart, I’ve looked at my own work—including work that’s already been published—and asked myself, “what was I thinking? Who would read this crap?” We can’t all be William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov or Virginia Woolf or Carol Shields or whomever it is we admire. When confronting this possibility, I do not suggest giving up. Let me say that again: do not give up. Instead, get better. Read more, write more, do another draft. Be merciless in your rewriting and your editing. Also remember that getting better doesn’t happen overnight. It could take a year, or two years, or ten years. It could take even longer. I won’t pretend that it isn’t demoralizing, but it’s not useful to either your work or your emotional well-being to take it as a personal affront.

Which brings me to Cliff Burns. I first heard of him three days ago, when Dave posted about him. Mr. Burns has a talent for rage and vitriol that is truly astonishing, and he directs it all at editors and publishers, seems to take every rejection personally. You can read some of his complaints here. When folks suggest that his responses are extreme, he has replied the following (you can find it in the comments at that last link): “My posts are not the aggrieved rantings of a petulant author, they are based on experiences I’ve outlined, in depth, in an essay called “Solace of Fortitude” (Google it, you’ll find it).” I did search for the essay, and found it here. The story he tells is not so extraordinary, not so different from hundreds I’ve heard and read about, some of those stories being about the early years of now successful authors. Mr. Burns would have us think the rejections are unwarranted, however, particularly because of experiences like the one outlined here. That is indeed a ridiculous thing to have happen, but as I said before, editors are human and sometimes the currents of commerce prevail. He challenges us to download his novel, read the first ten pages or so, and see for ourselves if he should have a home with a major publisher. I did just that (you can find the novel, So Dark the Night—a good title by the way—here). I read the first twelve pages, in fact. Were I an editor, I would have rejected this novel as well. I may not have even finished the first ten pages. The prose is juvenile, with a cliché—either a phrase or an image—not only on every page, but in nearly every paragraph. His characters have names that would seem ridiculous in a parody of a genre novel, never mind in the real thing. I would not only refuse to recommend So Dark the Night to others, I will not even finish reading it. Mr. Burns’ novel is simply not very good.

But Mr. Burns ought not give up. His blog is exactly as Dave described it, “entertaining and smart”. He is not without talent; it simply does not show in So Dark the Night. Mr. Burns does not need to quit, he needs to get better. Unfortunately it may be too late. He has taken his rejection notices as assaults on his worth as a human being, and has responded by insulting editors and publishers directly, liberally employing words like “fuck” and “cunt”. I mentioned above that doing something rude or stupid is a good way to ruin your already slim chances at publication for reasons that have nothing to do with the merit of your work. Mr. Burns has done something that is both rude and stupid at the same time. I’m sure that Mr. Burns is a fine human being; I have no doubt that were we to sit down over a cup of coffee that we would get along. The fact that I don’t think very highly of his novel does not mean that I don’t think very highly of him. I don’t know him, and so I have no real opinion about him as a human being to speak of. I understand that twenty-five years is a long time to struggle. I understand the sense of helplessness, and the sense of hopelessness. I have had more than my share of those two feelings (though I have not written about them here), and I am not without sympathy for Mr. Burns. If he thinks he can find an audience in self-publishing, then I wish him all the best, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking that his anger is misplaced. We all live with the same fears about how our work my be accepted, we all have the same trouble separating ourselves from the work we have put so much of our sweat and emotional energy into. The publishing industry is no doubt flawed, but name-calling and such is unproductive, unprofessional, and downright childish.

*I hate to be the one to break the news, but manuscripts are so-called because they are written by hand. When you send a publisher or whomever a type-written document, it is a typescript. You may not share or be interested in my linguistic pet-peeves, but I reserve the right to kvetch on my own blog, and will happily allow you to do the same on yours.

**I know that I use masculine forms most of the time, but I find consistency preferable to alternating between genders, and I despise the vague and grotesque grammatical constructions necessary to make all things gender-neutral.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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