‘Sometimes… it’s because you are a BAME writer, or a woman, or working class, or your face doesn’t otherwise fit. It’s because whoever you are, your stories, your world view, your sensibility and your voice, don’t quite make sense to the people in charge of opening the gate. Then it’s your job to stop knocking at the door and blow a hole in the wall.’
For my fourth interview, I talk to novelist and short story writer Jenn Ashworth (no relation) about her thoughts on and experiences of rejection. Jenn is the author of four novels – A Kind of Intimacy (which won a Betty Trask Award), Cold Light, The Friday Gospels and, most recently, Fell. She was featured as one of the BBC Culture Show’s 12 Best New Novelists in 2011. She is also a member of Curious Tales, a publishing collective which she runs alongside fellow writers Richard Hirst and Emma Jane Unsworth. Jenn also writes short stories, some of which have been broadcast on Radio 4, and she lectures at Lancaster University.
AA: How do you view rejection – as ‘failure’ or something else?
JA: I see it as an entirely inevitable part of my job. It means I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, which is creating new work and sending it out to editors who have some kind of selection policy.
AA: When did you start writing with publication in mind and what kinds of rejections did you experience around that time?
JA: I’ve always written – since I was a child – and I started sending poems out to magazines and for competitions when I was an undergraduate. I tried to send something out once a month. Most of my work was rejected, often without explanation, so there was no way to tell what I was doing ‘wrong’. I published two or three poems during that time, won no competitions, and eventually stopped writing poetry and decided to try my hand at a novel.
AA: I understand your first novel – ‘A Kind of Intimacy’ – was rejected by a number of publishers before finding a home. Can you say a little bit about that?
JA: After a very easy time finding a brilliant agent who still represents me, the novel was, over the course of a year, rejected by almost everybody. Six editors sent rejection notes in one day – which wasn’t the best day of my life. My agent was so tenacious with that book: he would not let me give up. It is a first novel and flawed in many ways, but a lot of the feedback was about how dark and bleak it was and many of the notes described how an editor didn’t want to publish the book because he or she didn’t like spending time with the main character. Perhaps that’s just what they say when they don’t like the work but want to preserve a cordial relationship with the agent – who knows. I had a lot of ‘please send me the next thing you write’ kind of responses too. I tried to get on with writing something else, but that was very hard. Eventually, one little publisher got in touch after having the manuscript for six months. My agent had found me an editor who thought the book was funny, and wanted to publish A Kind of Intimacy as their lead title the following year. Later, almost all the reviews remarked on its humour. So my lesson from that? It only takes one, but it has to be the right one.
AA: What are the most recent rejections you’ve had?
JA: A couple of pitches for articles and an essay I submitted during the summer. I’m awaiting an almost certain rejection for a big piece of funding for my next project and I wrote and asked somebody for a reference, and they didn’t respond, so I am going to count that as a rejection too. I’m having a lot of ‘rejections in my head’ right now, as I wrestle with the new thing I am trying to write. Half the time I am writing against the internal din of imagined editors telling me they don’t want to publish it and imagined reviewers telling me how shit it is. All of these things – all of them – are entirely par for the course. I try to accept them with equanimity.
AA: How do you feel after receiving a rejection now? Has it changed to when you first started out?
JA: It isn’t great feeling – of course it isn’t. But I try to limit the time I spend moping, shrug and move on. When I first started I expected to be rejected most of the time because I was learning and I probably wasn’t that good. I didn’t feel too bad about it. Now, I realise that a rejection means a whole host of things. Sometimes it means the work isn’t good enough, that it needs more time in the drawer, another few drafts, or abandoning altogether. That’s okay.
Sometimes it means you’ve not sent it to the right person – that editor is looking for something different, or just hates stories in the first person, or would never publish stories set in the future, or the list is full, or it’s too long for the spot in the magazine the editor is looking to fill.
Sometimes it’s because of something that is nothing to do with your writing, but is to do with the system of publishing we have today. Sometimes it’s because the editor loves your work but knows he or she can’t get it past sales, sometimes it’s because the magazine editor thinks stories about working class people or northern people or people from strange little religions won’t sell enough to make it worth her while. Sometimes it’s because you’ve pissed someone off, or someone’s mate off, on Twitter.
Sometimes – and Nikesh Shukla’s recent work has demonstrated this loud and clear – it’s because you are a BAME writer, or a woman, or working class, or your face doesn’t otherwise fit. It’s because whoever you are, your stories, your world view, your sensibility and your voice, don’t quite make sense to the people in charge of opening the gate. Then it’s your job to stop knocking at the door and blow a hole in the wall.
The kicker is being able to tell which of these it is – being able to know when to keep the work back, revise it, or abandon it (we all write rubbish from time to time) and when you need to send it right back out to someone else – and when you need to start creating your own opportunities through self publishing and promotion because publishing won’t let you in.
If you’re ever in a spot where you can’t even consider that you’ve written badly, sent the work out too early, and just plain had a bad bloody idea, then you’re in trouble. Equally, if you’re ever in a spot where you can’t even consider that just maybe, there’s a problem with publishing where you and your work is concerned, a problem that isn’t to do with your talent, but might be down to you to expose, then you’re in trouble too. It’s a balancing act and one that involves a kind of fearless reckoning of your own work, humility and a self belief that is very hard to achieve.
AA: Have you ever been glad that a piece of work has been rejected?
JA: Oh god – yes. One of the very kindest things editors do is save impatient writers from themselves. Earlier I mentioned an essay. It was actually a shortened version of a longer work, and I was putting it together under pressure from a deadline. At the time I thought I’d been able to patchwork an abridged version of the essay together pretty well, and I thought it was funny, but said something important about religious and cultural identity and how that can linger. I was disappointed to be rejected. It’s three months later and I’ve got it out to look at it and I see that I didn’t do such a neat job – that the joins show (and not in the good way) and the ending is a little incoherent (and not in the good way) and the humour, because abbreviated, comes off as a bit glib and undermining the tenderness of the piece. I’m a slow writer and I need to put things away for a while in order to let them digest and let myself get some objectivity on them. Because of the deadline, I couldn’t do that on this project. Lesson learned.
Although to be fair, I did already know that about myself.
AA: Do you think rejection – and perhaps any feedback you were given – has helped you to improve as a writer?
JA: It has certainly helped me learn patience, and helped me be humble, and helped me be a better teacher. With most rejections you don’t get any solid feedback, so you have to work out the reasons why the writing isn’t working yourself – or judge that the writing is fine, and you need to find another editor or publish yourself. It’s always been a tough call – to make that judgement. Most of the time the proper feedback begins when an editor accepts the piece, but wants some changes or developments to it. That’s when the learning happens.
AA: Do you ever think about the possibility of rejection when you work on something new?
JA: Constantly. I worry – especially with a long project – if I am wasting my time pouring my heart into something that nobody will want. I fantasise about how awful the reviews will be. I think every writer does that. I go ahead and write anyway, with all that thought as background noise I more or less accept as par for the course. It’s never once been as bad as I’ve imagined. Yet.
AA: Has rejection ever made you feel like giving up writing?
AA: You’re a lecturer in creative writing at Lancaster University. Is rejection ever discussed with students? If so, how is it approached?
JA: I talk about it quite a lot – especially because many of my students are already sending work out there. It’s a different world now though. When I was an undergraduate, I sent out one poem a month because sending poems out involved buying a few copies of a poetry magazine, reading them to figure out what the editor liked, choosing a poem I thought would appeal, drafting it and redrafting it, printing everything out with a SAE and taking a trip to the post office. It was the olden days.
Now there’s been an explosion in online magazines and journals the whole process is much easier and much more immediate. There’s also things like blogging, Wattpad, self-publishing for Kindle – and lots and lots and lots of very unselective small online magazines that will publish just about anything. For a new writer wanting to accumulate publishing credits and make relationships with editors and other writers – to get their name out there – it’s very tempting to aim so low you never have to experience rejection at all. And I do see a lot of very young writers doing that. Perhaps out of a belief that the older, more mainstream, more established magazines and journals would never look twice that them, that it’s an old boys’ club, a racket. I can understand that – both the eagerness and the despair about their prospects of ‘breaking in’.
I tell my students to start reading and submitting to the paying magazines with great reputations, the journals who publish the big names and the publishers who will pay an advance and have a marketing budget. If their work isn’t commercial enough for these outlets (and sometimes sending it out there and getting some kind rejections is the only way to figure that out) then perhaps they need to move to independent, smaller, more niche outlets – where almost all the best and most exciting work is being published but where there’s very little money. If that doesn’t work for them, I tell them to seek clear and honest feedback about their work from writers and editors who aren’t their friends, and compare what publishing in a tiny, not-very-selective online magazine they don’t even read themselves would offer their career in comparison to putting the work away and waiting a while – maybe a year – before editing and trying again, or considering self publishing.
Most of all I tell them that they should be getting rejected – because it means they are punching above their weight. And that rejection is a persistent and entirely normal part of any writing career and if they are avoiding it entirely, something’s wrong. I tell them about my own rejections too. It’s okay to be honest about that, I think.
AA: Gore Vidal is believed to have said ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies’. Do you think this is true? And if so, could the opposite also be true (as in, people enjoy hearing about others’ lack of success)?
JA: I think it probably is true, a little bit, for most writers. We’re all pretty ordinary and flawed people and not exempt from the parts of human nature that are ugly. But these feelings are temporary flickerings and I don’t nurture them. Mainly, I am delighted when good writers do well. I heard some very good and very overdue publishing news from a friend a few nights ago – a hugely interesting and persistent writer who has been ignored by mainstream publishing (which means, to be frank, he struggles for cash and therefore time to write) and has finally had a proper breakthrough in another country. I was so happy I did a little dance in my kitchen. Even more so when the news comes from a student or someone whose work I’ve read in an early form and seen develop. Then it’s just an incredible feeling to see them succeed. It makes me happy.
AA: What kinds of things do you say to writer friends, students or mentees who are experiencing rejection?
JA: I tell them to shrug and to carry on. To take a break if needed, but to get on with it. I tell them the hardest thing they will ever have to do in their writing careers is to figure out if rejection means there’s a problem with the writing, or a problem with the publishing world they can help change. And as it is so hard and takes such a long time to figure out, then they might as well get started. I also make cups of tea and hand out tissues: I keep a box on my desk in my office because I need them so often myself.