The Failed Novelist


Oh writers, what’s with all the judgement?  And where is all the tolerance??  This week saw the anonymous letter from a ‘failed novelist’ in The Guardian in which (what we assume) a female writer described her experience of trying to get published.

Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

But I’m scarred.

Despite having an agent and interest from publishers, in the end, a deal never materialised for a ‘bewildering’ number of reasons.  It was stark, bitter and sad – all of the things you feel when you watch your dreams shatter.  My first thought was, another one bites the dust and all thanks to the seemingly arbitrary process of submitting to publishers.  She is not the first writer to give up and I’m sure she won’t be the last.  To be honest, I would have given up too, if not for self-publishing, but more on that anon.

Reaction was mixed.  It’s obviously a topic that exercised a lot of established writers who have been through the rejection process and got to the other side.  Female authors such as J K Rowling and Joanne Harris offered encouragement, telling authors never to give up, because the next book might just be the one to bring success.  Also, not to view all of the hard work, countless manuscripts and years of honing your craft as a waste.  But then came the riposte, again in The Guardian, from a male author, David Barnett.

Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.

Wow.  That’s one hell of a back-handed compliment!  Can you imagine reading that after  writing such an honest and soul-baring piece about your disillusionment with the publishing world?  From a ‘successfully published’ author?  Obviously a student from the school of tough love, it seemed this author was taking the opportunity to tell everybody about how brilliant he was at sucking up rejection and that ‘real’ writers need to embrace it, or how will they ever cope with bad reviews?  I found his approach a bit predictable and dare I say it, ‘mansplainey’, but he did go on to make some very valid points.

Yes, there are those hip young writers who get picked up for a three-book deal on the basis of a single chapter – but they make the news because they are the exception, not the rule.

It’s true, the papers love a six-figure publishing deal and can’t wait to tell us all about it.  And why are they always the age at which I was probably playing drinking games and wearing a toga?  He’s right, this is absolutely the exception, so indulging in the Cinderella complex that you will somehow be spotted and picked-up by one of the big five (or is it six) is like sitting around waiting to win the publishing lottery, without having bought a ticket!

It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author.

Again, so true.  Most author bios (including my own) talk about how we’ve been writing stories since we were kids.  Just because you love (and have always loved) writing, does not mean the publishing industry will grant your wishes.  They have their own agenda and a seemingly unlimited pool of talent to choose from.  They might take on as few as one or two new authors per year.  They might have had enough of girls on public transport, just as you’re putting the finishing touches to your story about a girl on a bus (or is she?  do we really believe her??)  A lot of it is luck and timing, the rest is hard work and resilience.  But the part I can absolutely empathise with is the loss of control.  If you want writing to become your career, it’s very difficult (and frustrating) to put your destiny in the hands of other people.  It’s not like any other profession because the application process is a complete guessing game.  And the waiting, great Odin’s raven, the waiting!!  All of that time, wondering if you’re life is going to be changed, or if you dreams will be shot down by a rejection.

This is why the self-publishing revolution is the most important thing to happen to the publishing industry.  Of course, it’s nothing new.  Authors have been self-publishing for years (Dickens, Whitman, Proust, Potter), but the digital age has made it so much easier to reach your audience and to become a professional authorpreneur.  In fact, numerous people mentioned self-publishing in the comments section, but some writers still see it as a failure greater than not being published at all.  I find this attitude bemusing and to use one of Barnett’s words ‘entitled’.  I’m sure there are many traditionally published authors who look down their noses at self-published authors (just like they are doing to this woman, who hasn’t kept calm and carried on in the face of rejection) and like to perpetuate the myth that there’s so much rubbish out there (which is equally true of traditionally published books).  However, self-publishing is simply another avenue for authors to get their work out there, to build their audience and if successful, perhaps even sign with a traditional publisher for their subsequent books.  Many authors have taken this route and become hybrid authors, using each platform as equally valid routes to market.

Most importantly, it gives the author some modicum of control over their destiny.  Your book might still bomb, just as it might with a publisher, but at least you are not locked out of the party entirely.  I know how she feels, but pursuing your dreams means being flexible and finding more than one way to skin a cat.  Yes, failure is a part of the process and it can be the catalyst to push you on to fail better.  But that doesn’t need to be where the story ends.  I have a feeling this writer will be back, a little bruised but a lot more determined.  I commend her for writing that article and for being so honest about her feelings.  Obviously, it’s quite a while since Barnett has been rejected by a publisher, so perhaps he has forgotten how raw those feelings can be, when you’re just at the beginning of your career and feeling as though you’re going nowhere, while watching other people make it.  It’s hard, let’s be honest.  But he’s right; for most writers, this is the journey.

All in all, I think it’s a good discussion to have, because new writers need to be made more aware of what is actually involved in the process.  We are blinded by the ‘supermodels’ of writing, who get those haute couture deals before the age of 21.  We do need to ground ourselves in reality and the only way to do that is by taking the mystique out of the writing and publishing process, by having conversations like this.  But we also need to respect each other’s journey and stop explaining to people how they should feel about something.  One thing is for sure, being a writer is not an easy road to riches, fame or success.  So yes, you do need to love it and most importantly, (as translated in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale) Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down!