Writers Shouldn’t Romanticize Rejection

In the literary world, talent isn’t hiding. It’s being ignored.

Alex Domanski / Reuters

Last month, the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his riveting novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. A spate of articles came out documenting his win, noting the fact that the 44-year-old James was the first Jamaican to win the prize. One article by The Guardian however, focused on the fact that the manuscript of James’s first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected close to 80 times before finally being published in 2005. It also discussed how James had given up when faced with such vast rejection. “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he said, going on to describe how his desperation drove him to destroy his own work. “I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.”

This article was shared among writers on social media with exclamations of, “don’t give up!” and “keep at it!” But this reaction reminded me of the exuberance of many when Obama was elected President: To them, his election demonstrated the country had become blissfully “postracial,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.

What are we meant to make of the fact that James’s manuscript was rejected 80 times? Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t that uncommon. In fact, there’s a website dedicated to bestsellers that were initially rejected. Was it lack of imagination on the part of those publishers? Was it unconscious bias against a new and unfamiliar narrative—one that they didn’t regard as “mainstream?” Or was it a complex business decision based on multiple factors? As an emerging writer of color, I’m no longer inspired by this narrative. I don’t see much cause to celebrate when writers of James’s profound talent are roundly rejected in the course of normal business.

I’m weary of articles about beloved novels that almost didn’t exist and esteemed writers who almost walked away for good. And while I’m genuinely happy and grateful for the voices that make it through to be published and am thrilled when they receive well-deserved rewards and recognition, I know they are the slim exceptions, and that this is particularly true of writers of color.

In 2012, the writer Roxane Gay wrote a piece entitled “Where Things Stand,” which examined how many books by writers of color are reviewed by the pivotal New York Times Book Review. She found that in 2011, nearly 90 percent of the books reviewed were by Caucasian authors. Africans and African Americans only accounted for four percent; Asians, Asian Americans, and South Asians together also only accounted for four percent; and Middle Eastern and Hispanic authors each accounted for a paltry one percent. Gay contrasted this with the fact that according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Caucasians only accounted for 72 percent of the population. Although she acknowledged that her examination was imperfect and limited in scope, Gay noted that it still pointed out glaring disparities for writers of color:

Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.

Three years later, I remain perplexed by a system that creates the conditions by which manuscripts that will go on to be lauded are first broadly rejected. While other sectors have certainly overlooked brilliant new ideas and missed opportunities for innovation, this fact isn’t usually romanticized or celebrated. In other sectors this level of oversight would be called “a system failure,” or “inefficiency,” or “failure to innovate.” And policies and practices would be put into place to try to prevent this from happening in the future.

But I don’t see those kinds of self-critiquing evaluative discussions or major efforts to dismantle such systems in the literary world. Just last month, Publishers Weekly’s annual field survey confirmed that 89 percent of the publishing sector workforce is white–exactly the same as the year before. Instead, the focus continues to be on individual persistence against myriad, intangible barriers, rather than on the role of the system in creating and perpetuating many of those barriers, thereby putting the full burden on writers.

These barriers aren’t just unique to the American publishing industry. Earlier this year, a report came out about the publishing prospects for writers or color in England. The report, according to an article in The Guardian, “found that the ‘best chance of publication’ for a black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) writer was to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities, addressing topics such as ‘racism, colonialism or post-colonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people.’” And like the Publisher’s Weekly survey, the report also confirmed the lack of diversity within the U.K. publishing sector.

One of the most curious aspects of this mode of operation is that it gives rise to a secondary narrative: that of discovery. Instead of dismantling these barriers, literary power players emphasize how they “discovered” an author, even though that author was knocking at the door of the literary establishment the whole time, just waiting to be seen and let in.

These barriers are steep for all writers, but they are even more daunting for writers of color and other underrepresented writers who write narratives that revolve around themes of identity. Not only is it harder for writers of color to get published, but when rejecting our work, publishers tell us that what we’re writing about is too narrow and niche and won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. It’s hard not to perceive this as both a rejection of the relevance of our work as well as ourselves. And for many writers of color who face barriers in other parts of their life due to their identity, the rejection is compounded, forcing some to put down their pen and give up their voice.

In a recent NPR article about the need for greater diversity in the publishing sector, the writer Daniel Jose Older describes the formidable obstacle faced by writers of color in getting past gate-keeping publishers and agents, who are predominantly white:

You have to always be conscious of that. Am I going to be submitting something that is going to put the person on the defensive? Is my voice somehow going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I am submitting it to?

The article goes on to discuss how Corona, a novel written by the author Bushra Rehman about a Pakistani Muslim girl from Queens was rejected by major publishers. “That was the one comment that I remember, that there is not an audience for this work.” Thankfully, Rehman persisted and Corona was published by a small independent press.

But the impact of this publishing system failure goes beyond the writer. It means readers lose vital stories that make up the broader contemporary narrative. This isn’t just unfortunate, but also perilous, as explained by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Just weeks ago, the author Mira Jacob was asked to give the keynote speech at a Publisher’s Weekly event. She was speaking about her experience being published as a writer who’s a woman of color, but ironically her speech went largely unheard, for technical and non-technical reasons. Adapting her remarks for a Buzzfeed post, Jacob said, “American audiences are capable of so much more than some in your industry imagine. And if we can break that down to what I really mean, I mean this: White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere.” Jacob goes on to explain why it makes good business sense to publish books that reach and reflect untapped audiences. “Because all of us are so ready to talk about the world we live in. We are ready to have a publishing industry that is of that world.”

So, the next time a brilliant writer wins an award only after being rejected countless times, I will celebrate the writer and their persistence and victory against the odds. But I will continue to hold out hope that the winds of change will shift the odds in favor of more writers, creating a victory for everyone who loves new, untold stories.