By John Gilstrap
I received this in an email the other day from a writer who is frustrated in his efforts to find an agent:
“. . . I couldn’t get anything other than a form rejection letter, if that. My perfectly-spelled, perfectly-punctuated and personalized cover letters would earn me a form rejection from a flunky I’d never even written to. . . I know I’m not at fault here. My cover letter’s been tweaked (I even read your essay on JohnGilstrap.com to make sure I covered all my bases), I’ve written four different synopses for [redacted] and I know the fault’s not with the writing.” [Hotlink added.]
I feel his angst when I read this. The email vibrates with frustration. It also showcases astonishing hubris.
He spells and punctuates perfectly and is clearly not at fault when his work does not resonate with a prospective agent. Hmm. I’ve been in this publishing game for going on 15 years and I can’t think of a thing I have done in my work or in my life that I executed perfectly (trophy wife and perfect kid excepted). Perhaps his claims are true–I have no frame of reference–but even if they were . . . well, they couldn’t be, could they?
Writing is a two-way communication that requires an author to put words on the page and then a reader to appreciate them. I’m not even sure that spelling and punctuation count all that much. Think about it: while a chemical dictionary may be perfectly spelled and punctuated, it will never become a runaway bestseller in the trade fiction market.
If a query or manuscript receive consistent rejection, the fault must, by definition, lie with the author, mustn’t it? Is it reasonable to blame a reader for not liking the book he’s reading? It doesn’t mean that the author is untalented–I understand that Herman Melville was a terrific writer, but you’d never prove it by me–it just means that the writing, when judged by its own merits, didn’t seal the deal. It could be plot or characterization or voice, or any one of a thousand other causes, but the only solid, readily identifyable data point is that the audience rejected the offer. Absorb it. Deal with it.
But please don’t claim perfection.
This curse of hubris seems to be gaining wide acceptance on Internet boards where like-minded, frustrated writers-to-be rally around the fiction that the publishing establishment is united in excluding newcomers. They’re not being rejected because their work is substandard or unmarketable, you see. It’s the conspiracy. Given this widely-accepted “fact”, wouldn’t you know that there is an ample supply of publishers and editors and fee-agents who are more than willing to help introduce these people to the wild and wooly world of “alternative” publishing?
I guess for some people, anything is better than facing the truth. (And yes, I understand that there are a number of circumstances where self-publishing is the best way to go for certain nonfiction. Vanity publishing, not so much.)
Receiving criticism is hard. Rejection is even harder. As the market for novels continues to shrink, I’m dismayed that the ranks of published authors will shrink along with them. I just pray that I continue to make the cut. If one day I don’t, though, it will ultimately be my fault for not having provided the right story to the right marketplace at the right time.
The instant that anyone in any business begins to fancy himself a victim of his customer base, it’s time to change professions.
What do y’all think? Everyone knows that the industry and the marketplace are changing at a dizzying rate, but is it ever the reader’s fault when a writer does not “succeed”? (Succeed is in quotation marks because in a creative field, success is a word that defies definition.)