The Blog

The Pros and Cons of Rejection

What, I wondered, are we supposed to draw from this? Here are five reasons why repeated rejection might be relevant and what we might learn from it, regardless of whether we are writers or simply people striving to get by in an often unappreciative world.

As Marlon James accepted the Man Booker Prize this month for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, he explained that he had been rejected 78 times by publishers.

My own debut novel The Human Script, just published in paperback, was also widely rejected before finding a publisher and acclaim. I should point out that it wasn't rejected as often as James's, but then my acclaim amounts to a slew of good reviews rather than a Man Booker Prize.

What, I wondered, are we supposed to draw from this? Here are five reasons why repeated rejection might be relevant and what we might learn from it, regardless of whether we are writers or simply people striving to get by in an often unappreciative world.

1. Rejection as a badge of honour

Perhaps James is showing us his battle scars. He wants us to know the path to the prize podium is littered with the corpses of other would-be writers for whom ten rejections - or twenty, or forty, or seventy-seven - proved one too many and they gave up. He wants us to see that his success has not come easily. It is deserved.

His success is indeed deserved, but not because he is what some people would call 'resilient' and others might call 'stubborn'. It is deserved because his novel, in the judgement of the Booker panel, is a work of surpassing quality. A novel must be judged on its merits, not on how hard the journey was to write it.

2. Rejection as a mark of quality

It is possible that James learned a lesson from each rejection. He took criticisms to heart and returned to his writing desk with his wits and pencil sharper.

That's possible. But we need to be careful of what logicians call a syllogism: if James was rejected but eventually won the Booker Prize, it follows that anyone who is rejected a lot will win in the end.

This is obviously nonsense. It does make a good story: grit triumphs over adversity and all that, but the very thing that makes it interesting - the fact that the outcome wasn't likely, given the circumstances - should be a warning that this story is not typical.

Rejection is not a mark of quality. Whether in literature, in love or in a job application, sad to say, the more likely explanation for rejection or failure is that acceptance or success just isn't deserved. This may be depressing, but, as we'll see, that doesn't mean we should give up yet.

3. People are often wrong

Publishers are people and people make mistakes. J K Rowling was rejected by at least fifteen publishers before Bloomsbury took a punt on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and launched her success and assured theirs. Elvis Presley was told by the concert hall manager of the Grand Ole' Opry to go back to Memphis and drive trucks. Rudyard Kipling was fired by a newspaper editor who said, "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."

In hindsight, almost every success story involves some degree of failure first, so there are bound to be lots of these stories. Of course it doesn't follow that failure always means success is round the corner. We don't hear the stories of all the people who were rejected and amounted to nothing.

What it does mean is that decisions may prove to have been wrong, especially on matters of personal judgement - such as whether you like a book or not - where actually, there is no wrong or right. Some people still don't like Harry Potter, despite all its success. They're not wrong, just in a minority.

4. Quality is not always rewarded

One of the most famous regretted rejections was Decca Records turning down The Beatles on the grounds that "guitar groups are on their way out". Unlike some rejections though, this wasn't a matter of taste. And, unlike RKO's rejection of Fred Astaire ("Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little."), it wasn't a statement about quality either.

Decca's A&R man Dick Rowe, who is credited with the blunder, was taking a commercial perspective. In his view, The Beatles were not what the market wanted and his job was to release records that would sell.

Very few books in literary fiction sell enough to make a profit, so publishers - who are after all businesses - are perfectly justified in selecting only those which have commercial potential. Not just that, but more potential than spending the money elsewhere. That's a tough call for any work of art.

Sometimes, books, bands and people are not rejected because they're not good. They're rejected because they don't fit. People don't always want quality. A good book is not always successful and a successful one is not always good.

5. Keep trying anyway

Maybe Marlon James simply wanted to tell us all not to give up, even in the face of rejection. From his position, that's easy to say. But it depends why writers write.

If success is what they're after, some writers should give up. The awkward truth is some people don't have much talent. Not for this. No doubt they're wonderful people, adept at many things, but writing just isn't one of them. Sure, they can practice and they will get better, but, like a tone-deaf karaoke enthusiast, they will never be successful in terms of popularity, sales or artistic merit.

But most writers don't do it for those reasons. They do it because they can't not. They need to express themselves.

For writers like these, there is no such thing as rejection. They are speaking to an audience of one and, if other people choose to tune in, all the better.

The Human Script is available to buy in paperback and digital formats. Click here for links to buy from major retailers.

To celebrate the launch of the paperback Johnny Rich will be reading extracts from The Human Script followed by a Q&A on 17 November 2015 at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BL. Find out more and book tickets here.