In the Absence of Yes
Listen to this essay on Cunningham’s podcast In the Atelier:
Yesterday brought a new rejection letter to my door. It arrived, as do they all, in a white business envelope self-addressed some months before. The rejection was of the paper-saving variety favored by today’s quarterlies, a Xeroxed quarter-page containing a terse, pre-printed message amounting to: “Nope, not this time and probably not ever.”
The submission in question was an essay that took me a year to write, which shaped up to be a learned, provocative, and personal exploration of a subject in which I hold established credentials (the long, humbling writing process allows me to say so without delusion or inordinate pride). Upon its completion, I prepared submissions and dispatched them to the mail with the warming prophetic tingle that often accompanies work well done: this thing was bound to see publication someplace worthy of it, i.e., one of our more distinguished literary magazines.
The first several rejections rolled in, each accompanied by a personal note from an editor complimenting the essay and then professing equal remorse for refusing it. I sealed, stamped, and mailed further submissions.
Ambivalent editorial compliments answered almost every one. So I revisited the work, scrutinizing it for defects, poised to improve it. But without complacency, without smugness, I was simply reaffirmed of its readiness for publication, its power. I just liked it. Naturally, we are all capable of self-deception and must guard against it always. But whether you’ve “workshopped” a piece in the traditional writing program sense or run it past your merciless inner editor ad nauseum, the beauty — and curse — of an inescapably solitary discipline like writing is that, in the end, you must rely on your gut. How crucial, how arduous it is to tone the muscle of critical discrimination till you may stand firm and believe in the worth of what you’ve produced without being hardheaded or willfully blind. To strike that precarious balance is a talent useful in all aspects of life; it’s the trait we often refer to as faith or trust — and occasionally love.
More submissions … more conflicted No’s. And yesterday’s note was the sixteenth rejection. Sixteen.
It’s worth noting that a short story I’ve been sending around for more than two years recently garnered its thirty-seventh rejection — this on the heels of three rejected fellowship applications and a handful of queries flatly ignored by the editors I’d sent them to.
Two years ago I treated the subject of rejection on a blog: “Because rejection is such a fundamental part of my vocation, I’ve learned to look at it in a special light. As I see it, each no that arrives by mail, rather than being an explicit stumbling block, is actually a stepping stone bringing me closer to a yes.”
That has the benefits of optimism, but feeling as I feel today, I know it can’t be the whole story. It fails to account for the fact that sometimes (often?) the “yes” never arrives — just flat out fails to come along, for sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard one labors, how seriously one regards the task at hand, or how deserving one’s work may be. The proverbial road of one’s career, even for those already “on their way,” is rarely a route of ever increasing ease. In my own case, I’m discovering to my dismay that the road can actually get rougher. Even with two novels, a score of shorter publications, a share of honors, and the ostensible stamp of validation thought to come of critical acclaim, good work continues to languish in the lonely room of its composition. That “yes” — most longed for, most necessary — is never guaranteed. Meanwhile, in light of my firm publication history, every “no” that comes my way seems to mean more than it ever did before; no longer a mere formality, each demands to be taken as an explicit condemnation of my work. This is an eventual — and for me, unforeseen — peril of getting published in the first place, and throws light on a paradox about the life of a writer: where the private undertaking of his or her art requires the writer to cultivate high sensitivity — a dependably thin skin — the public act of producing and marketing that art requires a hide of bovine thickness.
But having served a term as reader on the masthead of two prominent literary magazines, I can confidently report that deserving work (as far as periodicals go, anyway) is frequently, even commonly, obscured and passed over in sluice tides of Manila envelopes. Everybody’s got a blind spot or two, the most experienced editors included. Moreover, one eternally unappealing fact of the publishing marketplace is that forces both cynical and wholly arbitrary frequently come to bear on the making of decisions. Fashions, favors, nepotism, “insider trading,” ad revenue, moral presumptions, allergies, upset tummies, hangovers, serotonin deficiencies, and above all personal taste can stand between ourselves and whatever we or our work rightfully deserve.
For my own part, faced with the refusal of editors to stand by writing they openly admire, I sometimes brood, Hamlet-like, and accuse my epoch. “The time is out of joint!” Might I be living and writing in the wrong era? Is my stuff unfashionable? I recall the consoling wit of Wallace Stegner, one of our greatest writers — and one perennially bewildered by the vagaries of editorial and critical preference (the New York Times, after completely ignoring Stegner for years, finally featured him in a backhanded article about “Western” writers, tacking the caption “William Stegner” to his photo). “Literary fashion,” Stegner wrote in a personal letter of 1972, “is a virus for which there is no vaccine, and if you happen to grow up a smallpox type in a cholera time, you might just as well reconcile yourself to faint praise, faint damns, faint yawns. … I thought I had a chance with this last one — my last chance, probably. It was a feather in the Grand Canyon, and I’m a little too old to rally up and try ’em again.” As it happened, the book Stegner was referring to, Angle of Repose, went on the same year to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Or I tell myself: think of Henry James. In 1895 James wrote: “I have felt, for a long time past, that I have fallen upon evil days — every sign or symbol of one’s being in the least wanted, anywhere or by anyone, having so utterly failed.”
That was soon after his first foray into writing for the London stage, the upshot of which was the humiliating flop of his play Guy Domville. And yet today, of course, we know he managed to keep working. Earlier in his journal James breathlessly goads himself:
I am in full possession of accumulated resources — I have only to use them, to insist, to persist, to do something more — to do much more — than I have done. The way to do it … is to strike as many notes, deep, full, and rapid as one can. … Go on, my boy, and strike hard. … Try everything, do everything, render everything — be an artist, be distinguished, to the last.
And there’s the rub. Call us the Struggling Established, the Honorably Obscure, the Foolhardy Diligent — we who face the timeless frustrations of the writing life as faced by old Henry back in 1895 or Stegner in 1972. We’re firmly in a tradition of existential literary angst — a realization which, even if it makes nothing easier, can somehow console.
A century after James, in a little essay called “First Books,” the great short story writer Andre Dubus offered his own Jamesian statement of faith (read closely and you see these guys are talking about more than writing):
All these truths and quasi-truths … about publishing are finally ephemeral. … What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement … the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair. … But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul.
As for me, after filing away my essay’s latest rejection, I sit down to my own journal and write the following:
It’s not a matter of what you deserve, and — more to the point — certainly not a matter of what you think you deserve. All that matters is what you’re committed to, and how you honor that commitment, and — sometimes — what you are blessed by.
M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.