By Simon Rutter
In vivid contrast to romantic rejection, which customarily arrives in a single crushing blow like a massive brain haemorrhage, literary rejection is more akin to having one’s muscle mass slowly consumed by flesh eating bacteria. The rejections arrive, one at time, heralded by the primitive two dimensional envelope icon of the Gmail alert. The effect of each rejection, while of minor significance in themselves, gradually accrete over time until the writer’s sense of self worth is nothing but a husk that will crumble to dust at a touch.
Some sadists at the University of Michigan once put test subjects in an MRI scanner and asked them to recall past episodes of rejection while looking at photographs of ex-partners. This is, incidentally, also the basis of a TV game show I’m developing called Heartbreak Brain Scan to be hosted by Betty White. What they discovered was that the emotional pain of rejection activates exactly the same areas of the brain that support the sensory component of physical pain. That is the pain of rejection “hurts” in almost exactly the same manner as pain from injury.
This led scientists to contemplate what could be the evolutionary imperative that causes humans to feel rejection so intensely. The conclusion they reached was that the acute pain of rejection is a defensive response to moderate behaviour that would cause ostracism from a group. Primates are social and co-operative animals so an individual who experienced no discomfort at rejection would swiftly find themselves removed from the troop which is a death sentence for a primate. Thus individuals who did not feel rejection keenly would be rapidly exorcised from the gene pool.
There are, of course, several courses of action which I could commend to lessen the blow of rejection or, even, make a vainglorious attempt to harness its dreadful and corrosive energy. Sample platitudes include:
It’s all relative, literary appreciation is subjective. This is superficially true but the ugly and inconvenient truth is that some people’s opinions matter way more than others. My friends and relatives thought my first book was great but that’s of zero value to me if all editors think it’s a parasite flecked turd.
Use it as motivation, write a better book. This just doesn’t work. If you think you can produce the torrent of energy and creativity necessary to write a novel just because somebody doesn’t like something else you wrote then you are deluding yourself. I concede that, for some people, it may be a temporarily useful delusion. Like the notion that red trousers look good on men.
Don’t try to process it. You will never know why exactly why you’ve been rejected so don’t waste emotional energy trying to analyse the root cause. Whatever reason you have been told is unlikely to be 100% honesty anyway as most human beings, even those in the publishing business, will attempt to salve the pain of another with some principled mendacity. We loved it, but it’s just not right for us, right now.
Re-engage with the work immediately no matter how hard it may seem. Re-read it and remind yourself why it is has value. It is possible to transfer the negative emotions into resentment against the book itself. Don’t do that, continue to cherish it.
Keep a list of everyone who rejects who and visualise yourself reading the names aloud of all those who misjudged and under-estimated you at your Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech. I intend to have each name on my list punctuated by the sound of a stentorious beat from a Chinese temple gong.
There is, of course, a universal salve to the endless torment of literary rejection. Simply write an instantly accessible but literarily brilliant novel with almost universal appeal. You should produce a work to which nobody could have any possible artistic reservations or commercial objections. I recommend writing something like Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Simon Rutter has had his novels rejected by over one hundred agents and twenty publishers. He is a subject matter expert on literary rejection.