Struggling writers in need of encouragement can find surprising solace on the editorial page of today's New York Times. Deviating quite sharply from the news of the day, the opinion-makers of the nation's paper of record have a message for all those frustrated Hemingways who dream of seeing their names on a book spine: don't give up.
The editorial, titled "47 Rejections, Then the Booker Long List," tells the story of Irish novelist Donal Ryan, who endured some 47 rejections before managing to sell two books. One of them, The Spinning Heart, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His story is not dissimilar from that of Paul Harding, whose novel Tinkers was met, mostly, with silence and indifference — until it was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
If one wants a lesson from these feats of persistence, The Times readily supplies it:
These stories hearten struggling writers and everyone else who struggles too. They allow us to believe that our luck could change at any moment; that if we persevere beyond the point of reason and perhaps good taste, we may finally succeed.
These stories also remind us that there is no science to evaluating literary work. Especially with fiction, editors like what they like and can only guess at how the reading public will respond.
Mock this is a high-handed treacle, if you want, but being a struggling novelist myself — one who has lapsed occasionally into bitterness over his failures — I welcome The Times's departure from hard news to address the difficulties of artistic creation. I don't suspect that legions of writers will suddenly turn into Jane Austen upon reading this editorial. But as Bruce Springsteen once sang, "I ain't looking for praise or pity...I'm just looking for that human touch."
But the editorial is not merely peddling cheap hope. The Times notes that "a healthy book industry is a diverse one, in which it's possible for a talented author to known on severl doors before resorting to self-publishing. The more gatekeepers, the better odds for the next Donal Ryan."
Mergers like the recent one between Penguin and Random House make that increasingly less likely. As New York magazine book critic Boris Kachka noted in a recent Times op-ed, the industry is in a defensive position, with most major houses forced "to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers."
Personally, I find nothing so encouraging as the Nobel Prize acceptance speech delivered by William Faulkner in 1950, in which he says that it is the writer's "privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."
So keep writing, just like The Times says. And when you're ready, press that manuscript into the hands of every editor in town. Or publish it yourself, hawking it endlessly the way Walt Whitman did Leaves of Grass. And maybe, just maybe, you can have the luck of Donal Ryan.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.