Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: The Rejection Letter

   Were there a new, adult-oriented volume in the Hardy Boys series called The Mystery of the Ambiguous Rejection Letter, I'd read it in a heartbeat. Others would too, I imagine: there must be a  ready market for the revelatory sleuthing of those two brothers.
   While knowing the truth isn't always what one actually desires (re: "Your ass does look fat in those jeans and you're a lousy lover and not a single soul welcomes your 'world-famous' fruitcake at Christmas"), having the ongoing mystery of rejection letters solved—or at least decoded—is something I'd welcome. (I think that right now; by tomorrow I might desire all the pretty white lies publishers send my way.)

   Consider Exhibit A (there's also Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, and so on; this example is merely the most recent to have appeared in my inbox):

Dear Brett:
Thanks very much for sending us [name of writing project] and sorry to have taken so long with it.
[Name of writing project] is certainly audacious, well-written and wonderfully cynical about the business of making movies. Despite its merits, however, we have reached the conclusion that the book just isn’t the right fit for our publishing program at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing this quirky insider novel of yours. It deserves to find a home.
Best wishes,
[Name of Acquisitions Editor]

  A letter such as this instigates a number of responses, not least of which is the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (minus the acceptance part, which arrives much later if at all).

   There's also the Accept-at-Face-Value Response that tries to be rational and accepting (though in fact reading the words feels like being dumped by someone you felt attracted to, and the reason given for the breakup something terribly empty and vague, like "It's just not working out" or "We're not on the same page at this time, that's all"). 
   With a face-value reading, you (tragic, dejected, rejected, self-pitying) understand that there's your novel in front of you and their "publishing program" over yonder and, well, as Kipling wrote, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." 
   You calmly tell yourself, "No big deal" and "It's the nature of the business" and hum (maybe after catching a Kelly Clarkson song while buying a carton of soy milk), "What doesn't kill you makes me stronger/Stand a little taller." 
   You remind yourself it's not personal, it's just business, and that the rejection in no way reflects your lack of talent. 
   Later, though, despite all the adult maturity and temperate acceptance, questions may arise. Such as: "What is this doctrinaire 'publishing program' exactly and why is it so narrowly defined?" and "What specific qualities does my writing have that make it a non-fit, a quirky outsider that the cool kids take pains to exile?" Even in the face of knowing better, these questions persist.

   Another reaction is the Classical Seer Manoeuvre. Ancient seers, you'll recall, read farm animal guts (in the manner of tea leaves today) for signs from the gods. The seer's interpretation would be heard by VIP generals or kings about to make empire-building decisions; after hearing what the guts spelled out, General A or King X proceeded accordingly. 

   Repurposed for letters of rejection, the seer/neurotic recipient of said letter, stares at the words with grave intent, seeking to extract the precise Platonic truth that floats below the illusory surface of the words themselves. 
   Stare, ponder, see beyond the mirage of surfaces: "audacious," now, does not mean "showing a willingness to take bold risks." Since it's part of the rejection, there's another, truer meaning to the word. Rather than being a positive, an indicator of admirable risk-taking or literary daring, then, it means "unsalable" or "too sexually graphic" or "this crosses the line into vulgar bad taste." 
   (There are compelling reasons for believing in the seer's strategy. If you don't, and prefer the face-value reading, the publishing is essentially stating, "Your book is audacious, but since our publishing program is categorically against audacity of any sort, you are not a good fit for us." You're correct to doubt that a publisher will say or believe that.) 
   Each word—"quirky," "well-written," "wonderfully cynical," "merit"—requires study, interrogation, interpretation in order to find its true meaning. Study all of them long and hard enough, and their truth will seep out and enlighten your previously befuddled mind. (All the while try to suppress the knowledge that often times seers were and are wrong.)

   Still other possible readings exist. 
   There's the every-word-is-diplomatic-doublespeak reading. 
   In this case, the truth is entirely absent from the letter. The truth is in fact simple: the publisher didn't like your book for reasons A, B, and C, and, furthermore, the publisher cannot imagine anyone who will so there's no aesthetic or economic reason to pursue a contract with you. 
   Instead of that painful, brutal response, the heart-of-gold letter writer opts for flattery ("It deserves to find a home") that, unfortunately, is so laudatory the recipient might mistake it for a letter of acceptance. Good means bad, maybe, or else good means good, but also something else...
   You'll go crazy with this approach. Think of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, maybe, and that trying to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time is one of the bases for that dystopia. 

   I was watching a documentary on PBS the other night, The Botany of Desire, and one of the segments discussed how marijuana's THC mimics a chemical that the brain produces naturally, all the time. Released to neural receptors, this chemical (and likewise THC) encourages us to forget. 
   The scientist theorized that evolutionary value of the chemical, speculating that humans need to forget because with so much stimuli (visual, auditory etc), our systems need to forget most of it to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Forgetfulness, then, is adaptive, a benefit of the evolutionary process.
    Take heart, you might tell yourself, knowledge of the rejection letter in your inbox will degrade and disappear, just like the knowledge of what you ate for dinner three Sundays ago. 
   Forgetfulness is good.

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