On the Joy of Literary Acceptance (and the Freedom of Rejection)
Amy Grace Loyd Takes Stock of All the Yes’s and No’s
“It fucks you up,” one of my writing students said to me. They meant all the no’s from agents and editors in response to their submitted work. And it can. Zero question. Still, I had to remind them that you can’t personalize it. Rejection in the writing business is inevitable; but I qualified with, “or maybe don’t personalize it for long, not too long.”
I never use that line about needing a thicker skin because it’s their sensitivity to language and living, to all the nuance and feeling in and around them, that compels them to do creative work in the first place. But rejection can be more useful than they know: it tests a writer’s resolve to keep at it, to find their voice, their own authority about that voice, and over time it strengthens their own capacity for yes.
I’m an editor who’s said no a lot throughout her career. For literary agents and editors, that’s a big part of our job, to turn work down, and often for reasons that have nothing to do with quality or vision but with fit, that outlet’s vision or voice, its mix of pieces or titles, ensuring the content is part of a current conversation or cultural shift. For magazines, what’s left of them, they have to sell relevance to keep their advertisers coming, which requires names recognizable at a glimpse on their covers, fame to capitalize on.Instead of continuing to internalize that rejection, I had to turn to finding other collaborators for my book.
It can make the writer cynical. The editor too. Being both an editor and a writer can complicate being the other. Like lots of editors and editor/writer hybrids, I’ve turned down some of the finest writers out there for all of the above reasons, and it can be tough to stomach. That’s why my rejection letters in their first drafts can come close to reading like love letters to the work I’m letting go. I usually cut them back to something terse, professional, but I always apologize (“sorry to disappoint” and I am).
I mention how subjective this business is, that another editor is likely to see things differently; another hackneyed line, but I still use it because its truth is undeniable. And, I can say from personal experience, that very subjectivity—that no two readers are going to see the same thing in a work or respond to the same things—turns out to be a gift and a refuge, not just for a guilty editor. It has been for me as a fiction writer as well, particularly in retrospect; it’s proven a liberation.
In 2013, I published a novel about a young widow still in love with, and altogether fixated on, her dead husband. She’s an apartment building landlord, and despite not wanting to venture much outside the narrow confines of her building or her love, she gets pulled into the lives of her tenants in some unexpected ways. The novel sold in several countries, got good reviews. But before it did any of that, it was a manuscript that the first literary agent who read it thought was “a non-starter;” he feared it could embarrass me because the story was “man-hating” (worked into his dismay was the word “misandry,” which I confess I was new to, at least in that context).
Of course, being an editor, I put great stock in literary agents and editors’ opinions, thought them better readers than most. I still think that’s true: A love for reading is usually what drew them to the business, but they have to make a living, focus on what sells in a marketplace in as much flux as the weather. That’s why another balance becomes necessary – balancing your personal and professional yes’s and no’s against others.
I hadn’t sorted mine out when I let that agent’s no knock me flat. I let myself believe in it wholesale and what it said about me as a writer—a non-starter. I didn’t just admire that agent professionally, I liked him. I still do. He’s as intelligent and able as people come. But it took another agent’s faith in that novel and an eventual sale to help me see that no as an opportunity and a damned lucky thing. Instead of continuing to internalize that rejection, I had to turn to finding other collaborators for my book, who understood it on its terms, which is what I impress upon my students and other writers, veterans included, who feel banged up by the publishing process—just how crucial it is to find that right match with an agent, editor, or even an early reader of your early drafts.
Even before that, a writer needs to determine what they’re willing to change about the work they’re looking to publish and what they cannot, no way, and if they do make those changes, sometimes big changes, must ask themself to what degree can they surrender to altering what they set out to accomplish. At certain times in one’s career, letting an editor reshape your intentions might well be worth it.
It was for Raymond Carver, to use a standard and standout example. He let Gordon Lish reinvent his work, and most people think to good effect. It’s among the best-known examples of editorial interference. Less well known is that Carver rebelled later—his yes to Lish as a young, unpublished writer became a hard no and the two men had a seismic falling out. In my classes focused on the process of revision and editing, I ask my students to read Carver’s stories before Lish edited them and after. Most prefer the style that Lish created for Carver—the speed and artful spareness of it. But not all, and in that is mystery and part of the richness of being human, of storytelling and story-making, of art in general. It is wholly unpredictable, and in this way defies cynicism—that we know all the available scripts out there too well.
Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write was given to me by a former New Yorker colleague, another one of us writer/editor types. It’s folksy but also inviting, kindly, and true, and in this age of cold civil war, in what can seem a void of civics and civic-mindedness, where capitalism taken to an extreme has been permitted to corrode our connective tissue and our common sense, this writing guide feels like a visit with an old friend—with idealism, reminding you why your subjectivity as a writer is your superpower, your birthright. Ueland underscores (the italics hers) that “everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be…Self-trust is one of the very most important things in writing.”
Both as an editor and as a writer I’ve had plenty of affirming, even beautiful collaborations with writers and with agents and editors. I have enormous gratitude and respect for the publishing industry that’s been my professional home for decades. I’d choose it all over again, choose every place I’ve worked and their bizarre and bruising hierarchies and blind spots.
But for the novel I’m publishing this year, I have to admit I didn’t want to try one of the trade publishing houses that I’ve collaborated with in my capacity as a magazine editor. My agent was dubious about how those houses would respond in today’s tight market for fiction; he worried about the story’s interiority and intricacy, the sex in it, the science. Other agents I connected with, who I hoped would be more comfortable with all the novel is after, suggested things I knew would take me too far from what I intended for the story; one agent I admire, for instance, wanted me to turn the doctor of the story—a man struggling with an over-weaning sense of duty and what it means to be a good man—into a murderer. Men up to no good is far trendier now it seems.
I decided to self-publish, not as a rejection of my peers or any kind of judgment of the pressures on them. It’s that I trusted the work I’d done, the years of writing and revising it, getting and making good on incisive editorial feedback from other writers and editors. At this stage in my life and career, you see, it was my permission, not anyone else’s, I most needed for this book. And, as publishing professional, I wanted to be a better player in today’s varied landscape of options for getting a book or story out there.I had to live into, write into what my own yes’s and no’s were.
Yet just as I was figuring out how to go about self-publishing, a writer who’d agreed to be one of my readers asked if the press for whom he edits could publish it. He’s someone I’ve long admired: daring in the best sense on the page, daring and generous in life. And the mission of the press that he works with? “We endeavor to provide literary artists with a forum that is free from corporate or conglomerate concerns. We seek writing that breaks with tradition and challenges the status quo.”
That there is fresh air to me and a siren song to someone who’s had to serve many corporate concerns over the years and not always happily. I couldn’t say no, and that yes has made us both so damned happy. It’s been a lift and an actual light to us (I can feel its warmth as I write this) in this time churning with so much head-twisting change and conflict that the view can get plenty murky.
But this is one story of one book, a book I will be proud of whether it is well received in conventional circles or not. Its backstory is one of so many publishing stories for writers who take a risk and commit to the time it takes to let their particular and peculiar imagination come, to create something word after word where there was nothing before, who are willing and able to wrestle with the attendant second-guessing over long hours, isolation, rejection. I had to live into, write into what my own yes’s and no’s were. They are each of our own to determine and to change as needs and ambitions change.
Sometimes a no is an affirmative choice. It is freedom. It concedes that we are not here simply to make a living but to a make a life all our own and this should be a process that denies you the reductive view of yourself or your work as a mere product, but as something that is evolving and evolving you. To wit, Uleland says, “No writing is a waste of time. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would keep on writing.”
From this expansive and affirmative place then consider these yes’s: Yes to the hard work of writing, to the discoveries that come with it. Yes to defining what its rewards are for you and you alone and to refining your intentions as you move through your drafts. Yes to your own authority in your writing life and outside it (which doesn’t just help as a writer but as a functional human in an often dysfunctional world). Yes, please, to not fighting it, to letting the yes’s and no’s all come. There’s pain in it absolutely. Don’t fool yourself. It will fuck you up. Life does that. Risks do.
But take it from me, someone who’s been on both ends of those proliferating and very human no’s and still writes, is writing this to you now: Stay in it. You are far tougher and get far more interesting, from one day to the next, one draft to the next, than you know.
The Pain of Pleasure by Amy Grace Loyd is available from Roundabout Press.