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.