Thursday, August 28, 2003

However, thank you for your interest
(Filed: 25/08/2003)

Tom Payne examines the art of the rejection letter

There are more rejection letters now than at any time in literary history. There are more manuscripts than ever - most publishers receive at least 100 a week - and more people to reject them. These days authors can expect rejections not only from publishers but also from the agents who themselves must wait for the work they're representing to be rejected.

Clare Morrall tells me she has received thousands of rejection letters. But now her novel Astonishing Splashes of Colour is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize, which was announced last week. It is the reward for an extraordinary amount of patience. Although this is the first novel she's published, it's the fifth that she's written. "I was very methodical with this one," she says; she sent it to agents rather than to publishers direct. Thirty-three agents. None took it on, so she sent it to Tindall Street, a publisher in Birmingham, who brought the book into the world.

DBC Pierre, who also appears on the long list, thinks this is because the agents don't look at much in their slush piles, and leave the skimming to interns. Some of the agents who turned down his book, Vernon God Little, don't even appear to know that they had done so. "I've since heard that some of the people I sent it to said they'd have loved to have seen it."

Yann Martel, who won the prize last year, was turned down by five publishers before Canongate accepted The Life of Pi. Francis Bickmore found it in the in-tray, and suspects that the publishers who rejected it didn't give themselves a chance to read it. The whole business is a raffle.

When there are so many blows to an author's confidence, it's hard to see how anyone can carry on writing. I suspect that those who do come to see rejection letters as scars that hurt for a while but soon become things you can show off. Jack London used to frame his. Plenty of writers have decorated walls with them. In this age of Oprah Winfrey, in which we all have something to say and, by God, we're going to say it, we are becoming increasingly familiar with the genre of the rejection letter. Don't worry if your work is turned down, we are told on myriad error-filled websites: so was Margaret Mitchell's, plenty of times, and JK Rowling's too. The premise here is that writers are beautiful individuals, and that publishers are corporate idiots.

And if aspiring writers still doubt that they're special, they can reflect that Paine, Poe and Pope published themselves, as if the work of these plucky pamphleteers and poets had spent years in a vault at HarperCollins but, hurray, they had enough self-belief to get out there and make us listen.

Just this month, the example of the Rev GP Taylor provides a fillip to all those who feel undervalued or overlooked: an editor took issue with his use of the word "skulduggery" in the manuscript of his novel Shadowmancer; he decided to publish the book himself; then it was forwarded to his parishioners and now the man has a six-figure advance. This sort of story is seductive because, understandably, we think of writers, not publishers, as the people who revolutionise literature.

But a book called Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard, makes you feel some pity for the people who sit in offices and make livings out of writers. For example, what is the correct response, on first looking into Gertrude Stein's Ida? However lyrical and lapidary the work, you have to applaud the publisher who wrote back in Stein's own voice: "Having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one."

Clare Morrall is aware of publishers who look to the bottom line: "They nearly all say, 'We quite like this but don't think it would sell enough copies.' With literary fiction they tend to say that either it's prize-winning material or they can't do anything with it." It's worth remembering that although TS Eliot was a modernist poet, as a publisher his banking side could come into play. In turning down George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London he wrote, "We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture."

It reminds us how brave publishers have been when they have put new work into the world. Many have rued that failure of nerve. I founded a creative writing paper at school, and can only remember rejecting one poet, who was called Patrick Mackie and whose elegant, sophisticated Excerpts from the Memoirs of a Fool is published by Carcanet. Bother; but I'm in excellent company.

When the first chunks of A la recherche du temps perdu reached the Nouvelle Revue Française, André Gide decided at a glance that the author was a snob and turned it down, only later to call it "one of the most burning regrets, remorses, of my life". Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape is unlikely to wallow like that, but does admit: "You're always haunted by the ones you said no to. I turned White Teeth down on the basis of about 10 pages," the same 10 pages that led Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton to snap it up. "And you know Leadville, that wonderful book [by Edward Platt] about the A40, the road I take in to work - I thought, in an ideal world yes, but… One should have been bolder."

In fact, the moments when writers receive a letter saying yes are more astonishing than the times when they are told no. Today, it is hard to imagine literature without the work of Primo Levi; but immediately after the war If This Is a Man was an extraordinary challenge to publishers. Nobody wanted to read about the Holocaust, perhaps because of horror mixed with a lingering anti-Semitism, and publishers knew it. One took the risk - a small house called De Silva - and printed 2,500 copies, of which they sold half. De Silva folded shortly afterwards, and only in 1958, after a handful of further rejections, did Einaudi take the book on. The plight of Anne Frank's diary was similar: it was turned down some 11 times before going into print.

Publishers still reject books that look all too relevant. David Caute wrote Fatima's Scarf, a novel about an author called Gamal Rahman whose own book, The Devil: an Interview, is burned by Muslims in the north of England. The novel, with its clear parallel to the Rushdie affair, was rejected 25 times. Publishers who had published him before turned it down; in the end he published it himself and writers queued up to praise the work. Something similar happened to Maggie Gee, who wrote The White Family, a novel about racism that many houses declined to publish. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with its frank but considered portrayal of white bigots; but Saqi Books was less afraid. When the book finally appeared it won a host of raves and a place on the Orange prize shortlist.

What makes the publishers in these cases look so short-sighted is how immediately Fatima's Scarf and The White Family found an enthusiastic audience - the authors were hardly loss leaders, after all. Still, in an ideal world, publishers should be able to judge each new book as if it were by a new author, and let the work speak to them on its own terms. How lovely it was when Doris Lessing had the self-effacement to submit a manuscript under a pseudonym, to establish whether the book would be considered regardless of who she was (it was rejected).

Many of John Blake's decisions are made precisely because of who the authors are. Among his authors are "Nasty" Nick Bateman, former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith and James Hewitt. Given the kind of flannelling that can pad a rejection letter, his honesty is refreshing. "There's a big problem with people who were famous five or 10 years ago, who were on telly every day and were very busy, but now they don't realise that time's moved on," he says. "You don't phrase it like that, though. You tend to say, 'the list's rather full at the moment', or, 'it's not quite right for us'. If you're feeling really mean you dump them on other publishers, and other publishers dump them on you. We pass each other dead celebrities all the time."

So what about the rejection letters themselves? These documents, coming as they do between the publisher's feelings and the author's, must mute the former to spare the latter. After all, they also come between a book's existence and non-existence. (Sometimes, too, they come between a person's life and death: the endless rejections of John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces are widely believed to have led to the author's suicide.) The letters publishers end up sending to authors are almost always lovely.

This is as true of the hard characters at John Blake as it is of the smoothies at John Murray. Blake says, "The other day we did have a call from a writer who was a bit hurt by the abruptness of the letter," but he does show signs of sympathy, adding, "To all writers, it's like their child… In the early days I used to write little letters of encouragement, but now we have a graduate who writes them." Katie Mahood, who composes courteous brush-offs at Murray, sounds so kind about the whole sad business that she reminds me of a vet who has to break bad news about a dog: "We're a particularly friendly company, and we try to make our letters a lot more personal, explaining why it's not suitable. They're normally apologising and encouraging, and we always look at the positive aspects."

Clare Morrall has more than 15 years' experience of rejection letters, and is in a position to say that they have become less personal in that time. She notes that those coming from a typewriter have been more detailed and helpful than the word-processed ones that are routine these days. She also has two daughters who are old enough to receive rejection letters of their own. The younger one gets politer responses, perhaps because she is submitting children's fiction. Agents are a growing source of the less intimate rebuff: DBC Pierre says that when they bothered to reply at all, they sent a standard rejection letter.

The rejections stashed in my own bottom drawer reveal nothing but politesse. My favourite came from Christopher Reid at Faber & Faber, whom I tried to impress not only with my poems but also with the fact that I had read them on the London cabaret circuit. "I must try to catch you one Friday at Kool Eddy's Café," he wrote, "but I'm afraid I shan't be able to publish this particular collection." The sweetest sort of letter is the one that makes you think it's the publisher's fault rather than yours. "I'm sorry, it's not for us" is the standard way of doing this, but some go a little further. "Our list reflects certain values, or interests, or specialities of the editors," Katie Mahood explains, "and so a proposal might not fit into the list." My best example of this is a charming note the Globe Theatre sent when returning my verse drama: "Our focus lies chiefly with Shakespeare and his contemporaries," it said, which is ageist but fair.

The biggest question facing the rejector is, how encouraging should I be? There are stories, urban myths I hope, of writers who, on being cheered by some halfway pleasant word from a publisher, renounce their jobs, remortgage their homes and starve their families in the name of their doubtful art. But from a publisher's point of view, the strongest argument against being too gentle is that it takes too much time. "Life's too short," says Dan Franklin. "I used to work with someone who'd write pages of A4, usually to unsolicited manuscripts, and the problem with that is that you get the manuscript back year after year, with the author having followed your advice."

I have heard it argued that there is no point in writing nasty rejection letters, since people who sit down to write a book, a play or a poem are doing no harm to the world. This is true, but it ignores the harm writers do to themselves by continuing to believe that the firstlings of their brains will at last reach the point of sale at Waterstone's. This is why the firmest rejection I received was also the kindest, and is quoted in full:

Dear Tom,

I spoke to Pat [Kavanagh, at the literary agents Peters Fraser & Dunlop] about your ideas.

As I suspected, her view is that unless you want to write a novel which you absolutely have to, then you shouldn't be writing that novel at all.

Does that make sense?

With best wishes, St John Donald

Anyone who has worked as a publisher, or editor, or reviewer, or as an editor or publisher of reviews, must wish that more people took this on board. It is a pre-emptive rejection, a kind of literary contraceptive that could save the world from many unwanted books, as well as the painful platitudes of real rejection letters. However special Sara Haardt was (she was a beautiful individual who married HL Mencken), one publisher at least wished she wouldn't write poetry. This is how he responded to her submission in 1923: "The poem I can't take. We have 200 or 300 hundred bales of poetry stored in Hoboken, in the old Norddeutsher-Lloyd Pier. There are 300,000 poets in America."

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