The Utility of Rejection

Before ‘ally fatigue’ set in, back when brands across the globe believed in earnest that the best way to demonstrate their solidarity with marginalized groups was to post a black square on Instagram, or combat racism by renaming the ‘master bedroom’ the ‘main bedroom’ (not like massa was raping anyone in his private quarters anyways), a major publishing house jumped into white-guilt-fueled fray with a tempting offer.

“We are taking un-agented submissions from writers of color until September,” read the tweet from ACME Publishing House*. “We will respond in 90 days with editorial feedback on the first 30 pages of your manuscript.”

The thread went further to inform the reader that if they really dug your work, ACME might even publish your book! So, what was a marginalized author from an oppressed group sans agent representation to do? Shooooot…submit 30 pages of that manuscript, of course. And so I did.

And I waited.

And I waited.

And waited until 93 days had passed.

Finally, on Monday, I got a response from a member of the editorial team at ACME. They were sorry for the delay in getting back to me. The rest of the letter read in part:

Your pitch letter was very well written. You did well to identify the genre, word count, and comparative titles—agents get lots of submissions every day, so having this information up front is very helpful. You’ve described your work in an effective and intriguing way as well.

Your writing is really strong, and I can tell you have a rich talent for storytelling. I like that you’re writing your story in alternating timelines and perspectives—it’s a very smart way to tell a layered historical story like this. You’re using sensory details very effectively in your writing and I would encourage you to keep that up so the reader can really feel transported to the setting.

 Based on your comp titles and your sample pages, my sense is that you would be better served by a more literary imprint than we are. I would encourage you to identify authors in the literary fiction space and follow them on social media (if you haven’t already) to find out who their agents or publishers are. These contacts would have a thorough knowledge of the literary fiction marketplace and would be better equipped to serve you and your work.

 Thank you again for the opportunity to read your work, Malaka. From everyone at ACME Publishing House, we wish you and your book the greatest success.

Did you read that? Wasn’t it wonderful? I promise you, my heart leapt with joy by the end of the email! No, I’m not crazy. I’ll explain in a moment.

I shared the news of my rejection on Twitter to mixed reactions. A few people liked the tweet in sympathy. One woman said she was struggling to contain her laughter at the news of my rejection. A close friend encouraged me to self-publish my book immediately!

“Not until I’ve gotten 15 rejections,” I told her. She was aghast. Why would I want to put myself in a position to be rebuffed repeatedly? I elaborated. “The Help was rejected 60 times. 15 rejections is lightweight.”

It’s a valid question. Why would I – why would anyone – seek repudiation from one publishing house after another? On the surface, it looks like self-flagellation…a masochist pursuit. However, the truth is there is usefulness in rejection.

What I did not understand about the publishing industry – what I wish I could go back 15 years and tell myself as a budding author – is that both the industry and the players in it are not personally invested in you until they are personally invested in you. That is to say, any acceptance or rejection of your work is just that: An evaluation of your work and its place in their organization. It is not a value judgement on your personhood. However, because it is often so difficult for creatives to separate ourselves from our work; because our outward creativity is an expression of our deepest, inner selves, it feels like a dismissal of self. We take rejection personally, when the fact is that it’s not personal at all. As the ACME editor succinctly put it, the work may simply not be a fit for the imprint. As in, your book on effective twerking, winding and grinding is probably not a good fit for the guys responsible for publishing mandala coloring books.

That’s not to say that every manuscript is perfect on arrival…because most aren’t. If those works are fortunate enough to receive a rejection and editorial feedback, it’s a win for everyone: the writer, the culture and the eventual publisher. Anne of Green Gables, Lord of the Flies, and The Running Man (Stephen King) were all rejected multiple times, yet they are some of the most beloved and recognizable books in pop culture. It is the artist’s duty to take the criticism with a grain of salt, return to the work and refine and strengthen weak areas identified.   

I find that it’s helpful to think of rejection in terms of a job hunt. When you put your resume/CV out there, you may or may not land an interview. You may or may not get hired after that interview. You will repeat this process until you find a company that’s a fit for you; one that shares your values and vision. The same process applies to selecting a university, a car, a life partner, or a publishing house. While passing the time on a long-haul flight between Atlanta and Johannesburg on Delta Airlines, the flight attendant I was chatting with about relationships put it to me this way, “Every pot has its lid, yuh know?”

I have never forgotten that simple wisdom. You can’t force relationships.

So, the next time you hear a ‘no’, or receive a response contrary to your hopes, try not to let it get you down. A rejection does not have to poison you unless you let it, and it certainly does not have the power to kill your darlings. On that score, you alone wield the strength and direction of the dagger.