‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’ Sylvia Plath
Those amongst you like me, who belong to the amateur writing fraternity, will be familiar with the dreaded ‘rejection slip.’ I am referring to the poor sap who toils night and day burning the midnight oil, thinking up crazy ideas for the opinion pages. Drafting, redrafting, crafting, polishing, honing and finally, sitting back and admiring his literary handiwork with smug satisfaction. ‘There, it’s done and dusted. Let me see any newspaper or magazine that won’t jump hoops and fall over backwards to publish this masterpiece.’ We amateur writers are not known for our modesty. Don’t be fooled by our casual affectation of shyness. When someone pats us on the back with a ‘well done, old chap, loved your piece on why birthdays are such a pain in the neck,’ we kind of simper, draw imaginary patterns on the carpet with our big toe and go, ‘thanks friend, it wasn’t exactly War and Peace, but it’s big of you to say so.’
Which is why many of us, aspiring Wodehouses or Vikram Seths, find it so unendurably difficult to entertain the publication’s rejection slip – a term I employ loosely because nowadays everything is done through the electronic mail, and no actual paper slip, pink or otherwise, passes hands. It set me thinking. I have been involved in this column-writing lark for the best part of twenty-five years and have had time to reflect on the different ways in which editors, sub-editors and other journo types swotting and slaving away in their beehive newspaper offices, go about assessing submissions from myriad wannabe writers like this one. Publishing a book is still a faraway twinkle in the eye. I have also been the recipient of numerous letters and mails telling me why my piece could not be entertained by the publication. Truth to tell, I have never really given much thought to these real or imagined slights. Every time I receive a ‘Sorry, no can do’ mail, I just stalk off and sulk for a few minutes, nursing my bruised ego and get back to work, feeling abjectly sorry for the magazine or newspaper that has just turned me down like a bedspread and missed out on a real peach.
I must stress here that I never felt sorry for myself. Like any other writer, I am way too immodest for that. My object of pity was always the poor publication. When you consider that James Joyce’s Dubliners, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and more recently, J.K.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were all rejected many times over by publishers before they saw the light (of day), then surely, all is not lost. There is also a stunning parallel in the glitzy world of pop music. The Beatles were first turned down by Decca Records in London before the Parlophone label picked them up. The rest is history. Seeing the monumental error of their ways, the chastised Decca lost no time in signing up The Rolling Stones, a band that is still raking in the shekels.
One of the earliest, and most memorable, letters of rejection I received came all the way from London. I was barely out of my teens when I made bold to post a messily typewritten article to that venerable satirical magazine, the now sadly defunct Punch – a weekly I devoured at the local British Council library in Calcutta. I had no expectation of any kind, not even a curt response. I had merely sent it off on a wing and a prayer, lavishing Rs.25/- on postage stamps. Not small beer in those days. One month later, lo and behold, I received a brief letter Par Avion, from one of Punch’s most brilliant columnists, Miles Kington, the man who famously said, ‘Knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’ All he said to me in his succinct missive was, ‘Interesting idea, but needs a bit more working. Keep trying.’ The note was handwritten and signed. I was thrilled to receive this in my dingy advertising agency office in power-starved Calcutta. We are talking early ‘70s here. It’s a souvenir I shall cherish, if the ink doesn’t fade to white.
That said, I thought it would be instructive to reflect on the different ways in which you, the writer and wide-eyed submitter of columns, is told by somebody in the newspaper office, nearly always faceless, that ‘this simply won’t do.’ That is assuming you receive any response at all. I have attempted to categorize them in different slots for a clearer understanding. Let me hasten to add that not everything I have offered has been met with a nolle prosequi. Not by a long shot. I have received as many acceptances as rejections. However, it goes without saying that the subject of failure and its inevitable post-mortem makes for far more entertaining copy, and perhaps, provides a few learnings as well. As the fellow said, ‘Failures are but stepping stones to success.’ After all, if you keep writing about how your piece was carried in such and such leading daily to wide acclaim, your reader is bound to be put off by what he or she will doubtless regard as mere braggadocio. On the other hand, when you pour your heart out and tell your reader how some highly regarded newspaper rejected your magnum opus, you invite sympathy and interest. Everyone identifies with failure. They are in simpatico, they feel good about you, and themselves. ‘He was rejected by The Times. Tsk tsk.’ So here we go. For your exclusive delectation, a typical list of reasons or non-reasons adduced by the media houses on why they could not carry your article.
‘Sorry, we are not able to take in your piece.’ Granted that brevity is the soul of wit, but surely, you can stretch yourself a wee bit and key in a few more words explaining why, instead of stating the bleeding obvious. The worst that can happen is that the lettering on your keys may wear out a bit more rapidly, but you can always put in a requisition for a new keypad.
‘Sorry. We have covered opinion pieces on cricket (or classical music) extensively.’ And you continue to do so. And it’s always the usual suspects you patronize. Why can’t you try a new face for a pleasant change? I am sound on punctuations and apostrophes, to say nothing of declensions and split-infinitives, which is more than I can say for most of your subs, judging by what I read every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, most of them can’t tell their its from their it’s. Or for that matter, their opposite from their apposite. One leading newspaper, till quite recently, did not even have a capital I in its digital library of fonts. The perpendicular pronoun, as Sir Humphrey Appleby from the Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister series so memorably dubs it, was always printed i in lower case by this widely read paper, even at the start of a sentence! Frankly, i was appalled. Good job reason has returned to its throne. The lost font has been found.
‘Sorry. We have changed our pagination.’ This hoary old chestnut is euphemistic for ‘we have reduced the number of pages, because we are running short of advertising to support more pages.’ If that be so, then I would sooner scan a cheerful piece or two on how to liven up our humdrum, pandemic-restricted lives, than to trawl through reams of copy on the endless travails that beset the common man. Not to speak of the add-on supplements which focus mostly on scantily clad wannabe actors and models, their dietary preferences, their exercise regimen and their pet pooches. Surely, space can be found to titillate the reader’s grey cells instead.
‘Sorry. We don’t do humour or satire.’ Incredibly, one publication actually said this to me. Sorry, but I am the one who is deeply sorry. Sorry that you do not possess an iota of ironic self-deprecation, a quality that elevates banal criticism to the level of artistic eloquence. Where the actual views expressed, whether you agree with them or not, become secondary to subserving the glory of the language. Oscar Wilde, who had a throwaway line for every occasion said, ‘Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.’
‘No sorry, no reply.’ Nothing puts the aspiring contributor more completely off his stroke than to receive absolutely no reply from the publication. Surely, we have moved beyond the age when we had to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope along with our submission if we sought a reply. If nothing else, the periodical, broadsheet or tabloid can extend the minimum courtesy of an email response. Like ‘Sorry.’ I once tried to be clever and wrote to the paper saying if I don’t hear from them within a week, I shall take my valued custom elsewhere. I might as well have been howling at the moon, for all the effect it had. Even The Beatles moaned about this lack of response, ‘This happened once before, I came to your door, no reply.’
‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’ Rock star Elton John certainly thought so, but our whiz kids in the editorial department don’t seem to have the slightest trouble strewing trite apologies about like Christmas confetti. I suppose we poor writers should take whatever crumbs of comfort we can scrape off the floor, whenever they deign to show a modicum of regret. I can only revert to Elton from the same song. ‘It’s sad, so sad, it’s a sad, sad situation.’
All said and done, if you’re one of those writers who finds the door slamming in your face on a regular basis, don’t lose heart. Start your own blog, instead. Like yours truly. It won’t pay for your keep but you can write what you want without a word limit hanging over your head, take pot shots at whoever you want, design the page exactly the way you like it and send it to as many people as you want, post it on your chosen social media platforms and you are on velvet. No tensions about sentences being hacked willy-nilly, or the slovenly misplacement of apostrophes. Finally, remember what the great science-fiction author Isaac Asimov said, ‘Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.’ If that was good enough for Asimov, it’s good enough for me.