Literary agents and coping with rejection

The kindest rejection letter I ever got was from a literary agent in the US. He gave me a few pretty solid reasons why he thought the MS wasn’t going to suit his lists and why he had doubts on its saleability. Then he concluded with “now go and prove me wrong.”

How kind – how un-agent like. It was many years ago and still sticks in my mind as the latest, po-faced rejections come slithering in. Not that they slither onto doormats anymore, of course. A ping of email delivery and it’s over, another dream for the trash.  A hobby so lonely even Robinson Crusoe wished he could give it up just got lonelier.

If nothing else the latest round of rejections had me reflecting on coping mechanisms and what attitudes my thicker skinned, older self had developed that were unavailable during those early years.

It’s not as painful, but it’s still not pleasant. Exactly how it feels to a first time amateur is always hard to explain to non-writers. It’s also hard to explain to professionals, Professional journalists, broadcast and film writers – along with fellow professionals from acting to architecture – live on a diet of rejection and have their own numbness its sting – they also have a professional plan. These plans involve pitching ideas before committing, repitching an idea to suit a market, testing the market for new ideas, reusing project material for the next pitch and then pitching a lot.

It’s a bit different for the hobbyist who’s looking for a step towards publication. Especially for a novelist, for whom the markets are rarely a set of professionally orientated pitch and sell cycles. More common for the amateur is to spend years of dedication on a project that has personal meaning and commitment. The desire to publish is more to do with affirmation of deep emotional factors. It craves a reward that is very different from the professional pitch-monkey’s rolling band-wagon.

For plenty of would-be authors, the literary agents’ rejection of your manuscript isn’t the same easy agony as, say, a casual “get lost” from someone lovely you’ve asked on a date. For those of a certain mentality it’s more like someone has scorned your new born child, has made an insouciant and abiding decision that  the babe needs to die to save the world from its pernicious lack of promise. Yes there’s a strong tendency to make metaphors of parental loss. “Of all stillborn books the stillest” said Mr Swinburne of his first book – and he was right, a massive, massive flop, now unread and largely unreadable and worth a few thousand if you ever find a copy.

It especially hurts your pride of course, because the years of writing have brought with them a relationship with the work that is a deep form of love. It also tears away your dreams of what the future might hold. It’s wretched if you’re on your second or third effort and have improved hugely as to the craft. You think you’ve ticked all the boxes this time, fine-tuned like crazy, plotted to perfection and market-researched your characters’ likeabilty – generally upped your game to make your offerings better than lots that are already roosting in the bookshops. You’ve been nurturing a fledgling hope despite your fear of its growth. You’ve told yourself for days that super agent x wouldn’t possibly want your book, they’re too… but what if they did?  What if this was the magic boost that transformed you from unpublished to published author and thus miraculously turned your sad and sorry hobby into something you could actually be proud of?

Literary agents – the grim gatekeepers?

Of course the promised-land of publication is easily over-wrought by hope and imagination. For one thing we know (or at least know of) plenty of authorial experiences that are not as magically transportive as might have been hoped. There are hundreds of thousands of published authors. You’ve hardly heard of any of them. Hardly any of them are full time. Many are stressing over where their difficult second book is going to come from. Many of them are hawking their own books round provincial shops. We also know just how many books are out there – count them at Waterstones and the city library. So many books. An ocean of independently sprinkled drops. Surely they can’t all be so skillfully crafted and divinely inspired that they cannot be replicated by mortals. So maybe the success of publication is not about gift or skill or divine inspiration. And when you send to an agent or publisher, as satisfying as the rite-of-passage will no doubt be, it’s certainly not a golden ticket out of a hum-drum existence as a hobbyist.

It’s interesting that most hobby writers still long for traditional publication. There’s something about the confirmation and the sense of belonging that remains important to the writing mind. Despite the known ocean of books, when we get to add our droplet it’ll be because we were better rather than just luckier than the rest. Is this because we have a strangely awed impression of what a literary agent is or does? Or is it something about the hallowed nature of the book itself? Somehow a low-selling book that is stocked at Smiths and can be signed on the flyleaf  seems, for many, preferable to a better-selling, self-published e-tome.

For all the leaps towards democracy enjoyed by the digital practitioners, podcasters and YouTubers, the traditional prose fiction writer still craves affirmation in traditional ways and from a set of people that are almost mystically distant from our current base of associates. Like a toddler pleading for parental praise, we look to agents, publishers and strangers-who-like-books in order to get their blessing and feel approved. In this way it’s most unlike gardening, cooking, DIY and a number of other creative hobbies we could be doing instead.

Coping with rejection

It may be that literature needs agents the way pocket watches need Salvador Dali. However, for those that feel the craving for traditional acceptance we allow ourselves to feel as though someone mean and malicious and unreasonably powerful has strung us up despite our pleading and struggling.  My latest was a standard rejection, too, which for the hanged man seems like an extra bit of gleeful drawing and quartering and a voiding of rheum upon the pendulous body.

Why do we imply it feels so much like death and loss?  I had a book as a child that had an author father as a character and the MSS that came back through the door were described as “the bodies” – “I’ve removed the bodies”, says the father. That stayed with me. I think the novel was ‘Cross Country Pony’ by Patricia Leitch (fantastic read as I recall and well off the beaten track today – worth getting from ABE books if you have animal-loving children – and maybe a demonstration of how books float forever in minds and second hand bookshops and why as writers we want to gift our works to a traditional system…)

So, loss, sadness, vile bodies and fear in a handful of dust etc etc etc. Well, if it is grieving, then according to the Kubler Ross model you get five stages to go through – denial, anger, bargaining, depression before finally reaching acceptance. Accept what though? Accept that it’s rubbish and don’t bother?  Accept the monstrous difficulty of the task and keep going? Maybe accept that it’s really not a loss at all.

Let’s run with this one. What have you lost:  a magic carpet to sudden success – a self-pride you’ve always struggled to muster – five years of your life and sanity – your only child? Er – no, not really. Maybe it’s not loss at all. Taking something from the professionals, perhaps it’s a gain. A gain in experience, a pleasant well, maybe at the end of the more important journey of the artistic, creative practitioner.

However much of a knock back it feels not to have got your literary dream this day in this way, it was really only a passing attempt in a task that has so much more to it. It takes a bit of self-persuasion, but the step forward I know I need for myself is to stop seeing today’s email to super agent x as the final conflict and climax to my life-story as a writer. This isn’t a resolution to a complex tale in which I failed to triumph. It’s just a smile to a stranger in the street who may not have smiled back, but so what, I’m still walking onward.

There are a stack of coping mechanisms all of them have been useful to someone. There’s the sour grapes about the worthlessness of agents. There’s the claims of misunderstanding – they didn’t  get it, they didn’t even read it, “the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”… and so on. If you’re still young enough to do it you can always stick up and stare at the old Samuel Beckett favourite from Worstward Ho (1982) …”All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Although some Godot fans might prefer “Let’s hang ourselves immediately.”) There’s the beefier end of coping if you’re inspired by Beatrice Dalle in 37° 2 le matin (Betty Blue) – stick a pencil into the offending agent’s head through the eyeball.

We can be glibber than that, surely. We can be bolder. We can be more realistic.

To share my own coping mechanism here, I’ve made two lists. One is the way agents can appear when you’re investing emotionally and you’re daring to hope.  One is a bit more sensible to the realities.

Is this list-making practice part of the grieving process – is it anger, or bargaining? Or is it perhaps perhaps just acceptance of a landscape that is rich in unpredictability, ignorance and unreplicable lucky breaks:

Ways to see literary agents

1 – the agent is an omnipotent god

  • I believe that an agent’s aim is a concrete judgement of the literary quality of my work
  • I believe an agent makes empirical, evidenced and unchallengeable decisions as to the merits of my work.
  • I believe that an agent is a gifted and brilliant literary critic of impeccable taste
  • I believe that an agent has read and re-read my work, got to grips with its nuances and subtleties and has now realised the text was worthless
  • I believe that agents are world-leading business entrepreneurs whose every decision is strategically miraculous
  • I believe that agents have scientifically ascertained which books succeed and can replicate a best-selling formula with whatever works they choose
  • I believe that an agent sneered and joked with colleagues at the temerity of me sending to their sanctified agency
  • I believe that this agent represents the likely point of view of all agents, who all share a taste and judgement
  • I believe these people are agents of a Salieri-style god, sent to torment me in my mediocrity

Or, 2 – the agent is a human business person

  • I know the agent is making one decision only –  will this text be worth them backing as a business proposition.
  • I know the agent has to make quick decisions and will only pay close attention to one or two proposals that leap out for them personally as business ventures
  • I know that agents need a “same but different” guarantee to work on and will only invest their time in something that has this slight stretch on a current and known market
  • I know that agents reject thousands of scripts that are perfectly readable and enjoyable but would just take too much effort to push from an unknown
  • I know that agents are readers that have likes and favourites and are influenced by their ordinary, readerly tastes
  • I know that unknown authors are hard, hard work to get into a reading public that’s content with the status quo
  • I know that agents take on works that don’t get published or which don’t get readers – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny
  • I know that all agents have passed on works that later gained success elsewhere  – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny

Add your own points – or make a new list “the agent is a….”

For me it’s back to some sending. At least these days it’s cheaply done by email. Agencies, like critics, have a certain place in the scheme of things that can seem daunting and are a momentary nucleus of power over your destiny. There’s no hotel booking style website for us to rate our experience with agents. They won’t get dissed online if they fail to be friendly or polite or just or fair – and we don’t get stats on who’s accepted or passed on the next biggie.

If it suits you, go back to the most favourite literary coping mechanism of them all, a list of the now treasured works whose authors had to self-publish or self-fund or who were surprise successes, originally pushed into minor rivulets of the literary rio grande. From the Brontes to Captain Corelli to Harry Potter to Lolita and Lord of the Flies we’re afloat on a set of random decisions that we’re just hoping will go our way.

 

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