Rejecting Faulkner

William Faulkner

 

Rejection sucks.

Every time an author gets that bit of bad news in their mailbox it stings a little. An author is sad and dejected. Unwelcome thoughts run through the back of his mind. Maybe the story is terrible. Or maybe it’s good, but it didn’t match the editor’s taste. Maybe it’s great, but they bought something similar recently. Then, there’s a tiny red guy with a pitchfork lounging on the author’s shoulder. It whispers: The editor is a fool who doesn’t recognize your genius.

Don’t listen to that voice. The latter is almost never the reason your story got rejected. Sure, there are notable exceptions. J.K. Rowling struggled to sell the first Harry Potter novel. James Patterson was rejected many times. But for every Rowling and Patterson there are hundreds of aspiring authors who get rejected because they aren’t good enough yet, because they haven’t thoroughly polished their manuscript, and for dozens of other, perfectly legitimate reasons.

Authors who eventually succeed learn to develop a thick skin when it comes to rejection. Shake it off, send the manuscript to the next market, and work harder on your next one. Those people who don’t handle rejection well end up quitting, including some who have the makings of a great writer. Then there are the angry, bitter writers who blame everyone and everything for their lack of success – except themselves.

Today I read an essay by G.D. McFetridge, who appears to be firmly in the “blame someone else” camp. The essay is titled “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner” and can be found in the winter 2011 issue of Mobius magazine.

To summarize, Mr. McFetridge submitted a slightly modified 4,000-word excerpt from William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” to a slew of literary magazines, as an original short story. In the essay he proudly shares the rejection slips he got from slush readers and editors, and questions their competence for having rejected Faulkner.

This in itself isn’t really news. Every so often an exasperated writer tries this sort of a nasty trick on the magazines that have been rejecting him. No one except other exasperated, rejection-collecting authors is amused. You can guess how the editors and slush readers feel about this. (Spoiler: They dislike it. A lot.)

In the end, it proves nothing. Stories really are rejected for dozens of reasons. Each publication is seeking a certain kind of voice, style, something fresh. Any magazine worth its salt receives hundreds of submissions for every open slot in their table of contents and must, therefore, reject plenty of great stories. And these are real short stories we’re talking about–I question Mr. McFetridge’s wisdom in yanking a chunk of a 50-year old novel and hoping that Faulkner’s voice alone would magically make it work as a standalone piece.

G.D. McFetridge didn’t stop at plagiarizing Faulkner (yes, I know he wasn’t actually trying to steal somebody else’s work, but …). He went on to submit several stories published in prestigious anthologies under his own name and collected more rejection slips. He then impersonated famous authors and called editors on the phone, asking them to pull the work of his protégé out of the slush pile for a closer look.

He was then scandalized that they obliged.

In a nutshell, Mr. McFetridge’s point is that editors and slush readers at literary markets are incompetent, corrupt, and that a regular Joe has almost no chance of succeeding under this rigged system. To which I say: nonsense.

Let us examine what it is McFetridge decries as being wrong with the publishing word:

  • Big-name authors bypass the slush pile, their stories landing directly on the senior editor’s desk.

What’s wrong with that? They’re big-name authors because they have already proven their ability, by winning awards or by selling copy–either is a fine metric.  A-list Hollywood talent are asked to star in films–they don’t have to pass an audition the way newer actors must.

In speculative fiction magazines, there are many criteria that will get you past the slush reader. You may be an author whose work the editor already enjoys. Some magazines bump up SFWA members, or folks previously published by top markets. Some advance anyone who has attended a prestigious workshop like Viable Paradise or Clarion.

All of these are legitimate decisions that signify meritocracy rather than corruption.

  • Several editors were all-too-happy to pull a story from slush on a recommendation of a (fake) famous author.

Again, what’s wrong with this? If an accomplished author I like and respect suggests that another author’s work is amazing, I am likely to pay attention. This happens all the time – just look at the back of any book cover.

Mr. McFetridge brandishes this as evidence of a broken system, but in reality a recommendation from a mentor can only get a protégé so far. Once the manuscript lands on the editor’s desk it must stand on its own merit. Stephen King himself couldn’t endorse a fledgling author’s bad story strongly enough to get it published.

  • The game is rigged, and you must have some special connections to get published

This is really the crux of Mr. McFetridge’s essay, and the part I disagree with the most. He writes: “The Pretty People Review is open to all submissions, but be forewarned. We hand out special treatment to insiders and the chosen few—and if you ain’t one of them … tough nuggets!”

Yes, you can get special treatment from a magazine. In most cases, there’s good reason for it (as described above). But, in every case, getting past the slush pile will not guarantee a sale. The only way to do that is to submit a great story.

Every single one of those big-name writers the essayist is raging against started out in the slush pile. In his book “On Writing” Stephen King talks about years of rejections he endured early in his career. King, and others like him, made it in the publishing world based on their talent and hard work, and so can anybody, regardless of whatever special connections they may or may not possess.

Ironically, G.D. McFetridge’s own writing is pretty good (based solely on reading his essay). Sure, he could stand to learn the difference between “ascetic” and “aesthetic” (see paragraph 3), but nobody’s perfect. He will probably get published, if he keeps at it. Though, I bet, not by any of the venues he pranked.

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19 Responses to Rejecting Faulkner

  1. Cynthia says:

    Terrific essay, Alex. I hope you’re right about the hard work paying off. I’ll let you know in about 10 years. ;o)

  2. Wow. What a really interesting piece! I’m from the camp of: “It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen” though I’m fully aware of my failings and where I need to improve. I don’t see it as me putting myself down, but me ensuring that before I put my work out there, I am ensuring it is the best I can make it.

    I find it amusing how arrogant some people can be. Like the world owes them a favour. Nothing in life worth having comes easy so they really do need to get a grip.

    As you say, rejections come for a variety of reasons and it is most likely either his attitude (not professional) or the content that is not quite on par with their standards yet.

    I look forward to reading more of your musings!

  3. Glad you pointed this out: “I question Mr. McFetridge’s wisdom in yanking a chunk of a 50-year old novel and hoping that Faulkner’s voice alone would magically make it work as a standalone piece.”

    Frankly, that in and of itself struck me as pretty much an invalidation of his “experiment”. Novels and short stories have different pace, different rhythms. To not even acknowledge that fact in his essay seemed to me to indicate that either A) he’s oblivious to that fact or B) that he was hoping to gin up outrage in other people who might be oblivious to that fact. You can guess how I feel about either alternative.

  4. Alex Shvartsman says:

    Thanks, Kelly!

    And, Michael, that was definitely an important point. Although I wonder if his own “added beginning and ending” had as much to do with the “story” being rejected as the fact that it was ripped from a piece of the novel. Certainly, the rejections he quoted seem to suggest that the readers felt it didn’t stand out on its own.

  5. A multiple Hugo winner told me outright that it’s not a meritocracy for a reason that you state. His name sells books. Mine doesn’t. So I don’t have to be as good as him. I have to be clearly better to push him and others like him aside for a spot.

    I’m not whining, just observing that life is hard and is not fair. But no big news there.

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      I think we have different definitions of what constitutes a meritocracy. This multiple Hugo winner did not start out in his current position. He started in the same place where you, and I, and Mr. McFetridge started out. It was his talent and ability that got him into the position he enjoys today. And it is possible for you, if you work hard and write awesome stories, to win a TOC slot over him. In the corrupt world of publishing McFetridge envisions this wouldn’t be possible at all. To me, that is the definition of meritocracy.

  6. The whole notion that art is separable from its time, place and artist is ridiculous. Part of the reason we read Hemingway’s war stories is that he’s been there and done that. Derivative literature has to be very different from works that inspired it, or it’s plagiarism.

    I have a story at Ideomancer that borrows hugely from Poe, Pushkin and Gogol – but I have no expectations of it being mentioned in the same breath with them.

  7. G. D. McFetridge says:

    Alex (who?),

    You’re hardly worth the effort, but I’m bored. First of all, you don’t know who I am, I’m published under more than one name. Your shallow attack reveals more about you than me. Are you a republican, or just a cohort of FJ’s? The selective way in which you drew from my essay excluded any chance of your rant being objective, a rant clearly meant to elevate your little ego at my expense. Good for you. But you’re way out of the loop. “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner” was first published over ten years ago; in its various evolutions it has now been published 10 or 11 times, including the UK, where, unlike any of your work, it got high praise from John Jenkins. It also won an academic literary award in 2006 for the year’s best creative nonfiction. The editor of the “Harvard Review” said: “Although we do not have a place for your work in the upcoming issue, we thought your nonfiction essay stood out from the rest of the crowd.” Arkansas Review (Janelle Collins wrote: I found your submission, “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner,” a fascinating read … It’s well written and witty. And a fine reminder that journals exist because of writers and that each submission deserves the resepct of a careful reading.” In closing I want to thank you for adding to my celebrity, because of course the second best thing is good press, the best thing is bad! Just ask Charlie Sheen. Go to Temple and talk to someone, you’ll feel better about yourself. Oh, and by the way, how many of your essays have been published ten times? Love ya, sweetie, say hi to your wife, GD

  8. Alex Shvartsman says:

    GD,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing more of your wisdom with my readers. Taking the time out of the busy writing schedule your alter egos and pseudonyms are having, and all that.

    Clearly my shallow attack on your person has failed. In my inadequate attempt to warp and subvert the meaning of your essay I foolishly linked to your actual essay. My idol FJ (whoever that is) will be sorely disappointed in me.

    I’m glad to hear that you’ve had more success in shopping around your essay than your fiction. Having it published 10 or 11 times in as many years must’ve been quite a feat. Especially in the UK. Personally, I was only published in the UK once and I humbly concede that getting paid in Pound Sterling is quite nice.

    I should have known better than to express my disagreement with your assertions on my blog. I’m definitely outmatched. From a mere 1000 word “rant” you’ve been able to draw conclusions about my political affiliation, religious beliefs and state of mind. If I could jump to conclusions like that perhaps one day I’d be eligible for an academic literary award, too.

    I was especially impressed with the rejection letters you quoted to prove that you wrote a good essay. It was easy to convince me since I, too, stated in my “rant” that your essay was well-written. I had no issues at all with the style or wit of your article.
    My issue was with the fact that you put your name on other authors’ work.

    My issue was with you wasting the time of editors and slush readers and then calling them out for a totally subjective and personal decision of rejecting the manuscripts you sent them, under false pretenses.

    And my biggest issue was with your conclusion that the system is rigged and that you can’t (or at least aren’t likely to) get published based purely on the merit of your writing. I strongly disagree with this assertion, which is why I chose to discuss your essay on my blog.

    You did not address any of these points in your reply, choosing instead to concentrate on “winning” the debate, Charlie Sheen style, the crux of your argument being that I’m a nobody, and how dare I speak out.

    Oh, and I actually feel quite good about myself, thanks for asking.

  9. S. Train says:

    Funny that some of us actually do get published in upper tier lit-mags (some that even–gasp–pay) couldn’t claim any of the following:

    1. I knew someone on the fiction board.
    2. I knew the editor.
    3. Member of some big organization like SFWA (how that would help me get into a lit-mag, I’m not sure, but okay.)
    4. Am terribly “well known.”
    5. Write cover letters talking about the famous authors I DO know.

    I guess all those payments to the magical publishing fairy paid off. Golly!

    Who knew that people still wrote like Faulkner? Glad someone finally told me.

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      I’m in the same boat with speculative fiction publication. I began writing fiction just 1.5 years ago and made about two dozen sales, including several to pro venues. Although I made friends in the industry since then, I can honestly state that when I started out I:

      * Did not know a single editor/slush reader personally
      * Did not know any famous writers who would read or promote my work
      * Never attended a writer convention, conference or workshop (except gaming cons)
      * Knew NOTHING of the submission process (my first cover letter is laughable)
      * Had no other advantage of any kind that could make my submission bypass the slush pile.

      If anything, I was at a significant disadvantage since English isn’t my native language. To this day I have to work twice as hard as most other writers in order to catch small errors with tenses and punctuation, caused in part by my lack of former English education.

      So I’d like to think that I got through those slush piles based solely on merit. Of course, someone like GD might choose to credit the global Jewish conspiracy instead.

  10. Samuel says:

    Loved your rebuttal to McFetridge’s original essay. It presented my own view on the matter very eloquently. Now if I ever run into writers as cynical and egotistical as McFetridge I’ll only have to link them to your blog. Thanks Alex!

  11. Geordie Tait says:

    Maybe you didn’t have issues with the style of G.D.’s article in Mobius, but I did. He sounds like an deceitful, entitled asshole in it.

  12. S. Train says:

    Alex,

    I think what perturbs me the most is that I worked very hard for my publications. Very hard. I wrote my bum off, took critique (some hard critique) and kept my butt in the ole office chair. I submitted. I kept submitting.

    It’s research and hard work. Research the magazines before you submit. A pal of mine has it down to an art. She can usually get a “hit” in 3-4 queries simply by knowing her market and knowing what magazines are printing.

    But, above all else, you have to check your ego at the door. Rejection sucks, but whenever I get feedback, I reread the story and look for where my story might have fallen short. Even if I don’t agree with the critique, it’s always smart to take a step back and see if there’s something there, something I missed being so close to a piece of fiction. We’ve all done it. We all wear blinders at times when it comes to our writing, but, how else are we going to learn?

  13. G. D. McFetridge says:

    Oh Alex, why aren’t you advertising my latest success? Publication in “Confrontation” out of the University of Long Island. Spring 2013 issue!!! Right in yer neighborhood, buddy. Come on you cheap-ass, buy a copy … oh, and sorry for outing you to your goy friends!!

    Best regards, G. D.

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