So every few years, some frustrated writer gets the idea that he will expose the publishing industry for the hypocrites they are by submitting a piece of famous writing to a few agents or publishers, and daring them to reject it. Yes, they always do reject it, but no, that doesn’t mean anyone’s been “exposed.”
The latest attempt is described in an essay and rebuttal, on the excellent online journal Mobius. G. D. McFetridge chronicles how he pilfered an excerpt from Faulkner’s novel series, The Hamlet, made “adjustments in the opening and ending pages,” re-titled it, and submitted it as a short story to a few literary journals.
As the rejections came in McFetridge speculated that the reasons he couldn’t get the pieces published ranged from a network of cronies whose ranks he couldn’t crack, to literary elitism enforced by the self-appointed gods of the lit world. The possibility that that what he submitted didn’t match what the readers and editors were seeking didn’t enter into his equation.
He tried the same scam with more recent short stories already published in The Atlantic Monthly and a “best of” anthology, and got the same result, although the rejections were at least more personal.
Later, he ramped up his attempts by masquerading as a well-known author (he didn’t say who) championing an unknown writer from the Montana plains, whom he called a “diamond in the rough,” a barely-disguised reference to himself. He called a few journals and was received warmly, with promises that the writer’s work would vault the slush pile because he knew someone famous.
The morals: If you’re not already on the inside, you don’t have much chance of ever getting there, no matter what you write. Being one of the chosen has much more to do with networks than talent. Most readers and editors play favorites and are not qualified to do their jobs. Industry exposed!
Well, not really.
To be honest, I’ve had all these thoughts myself. Often. And all these statements are, to some extent, true.
But here’s the thing—it doesn’t matter.
Name an industry or endeavor in which cronyism, favoritism, elitism, and every ism you can imagine isn’t practiced. Politics, business? Come on. Sports? Get serious. The clergy? Don’t make me laugh. Art and literature? Why should they be any different?
Developing cliques, valuing reputations over talent and substance—that’s what people do and have done throughout their history. The reasons are complex and stem from many factors, such as our inherent desire to be accepted by a group or people we perceive to be role models, comfort levels, chains of command, experience, inexperience, incompetence, ignorance and more. It’s what makes society work the way it does. It builds civilizations and brings them down, and keeps even the most established institutions in flux. My only actual objection to McFetridge’s actions is that, as a writer, he should have realized that aspect of human nature long ago.
So as a writer on the outside, looking in at the literary cognoscienti, what should McFetridge (and I, and thousands of others) do?
I can only answer that for myself. I’ve thought about quitting, rather than spending the next few decades writing in obscurity and never having a novel published, or a short story in a “name” journal. It might be nice to come home from work and relax with my wife or watch TV or read, rather than hunker down with the laptop and try to improve my latest fiction, or apply for yet another residency or retreat or teaching job, knowing that it’s likely an exercise in futility.
It hurts sometimes, enrages at others. I’m a good writer, as good as ninety percent of the writers who make it into the prestigious journals. So are thousands of other writers. Where I live, which I admit is not anyplace known for its writing community, I am the writer most other writers come to for advice and critiques. None of that matters when I submit my manuscripts.
But I’ve also imagined how I would feel about myself if I didn’t write, didn’t see this thing through, and have already felt the overwhelming regret in store if I didn’t pursue this passion. Not so much because I deserve to be famous or even successful as a writer, but because, of all the things I’ve done in my life, all the jobs and outside pursuits, this is the one that feels right. This is the one I want to pursue, even after coming home from a grueling day only to find more rejections in my mail and email. This is the answer when someone asks why anyone would want to be a writer.
That’s human nature too.