July 2nd, 2012
|08:28 pm - "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" 's take on success|
"Suppose four publishers have rejected the manuscript for your thriller about love, war, and global warming. Your intuition and the bad feeling in the pit of your stomach might say that the rejections by all those publishing experts mean your manuscript is no good. But is your intuition correct? Is your novel unsellable? We all know from experience that if several tosses of a coin come up heads, it doesn't mean we are tossing a two-headed coin. Could it be that publishing success is so unpredictable that even if our novel is destined for the best-seller list, numerous publishers could miss the point and send those letters that say thanks but no thanks? One book in the 1950s was rejected by publishers, who responded with such comments as 'very dull,' 'a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions,' and 'even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject [World War II] was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it.' That book, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, has sold 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books in history. Rejections letters were also sent to Sylvia Plath because 'there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice,' to George Orwell for Animal Farm because 'it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.,' and to Isaac Bashevis Singer because 'it's Poland and the rich Jews again.' Before he hit big, Tony Hillerman's agent dumped him, advising that he should 'get rid of all that Indian stuff.'
"Those were not isolated misjudgments. In fact, many books destined for great success had to survive not just rejection, but repeated rejection. For example, few books today are considered to have more obvious and nearly universal appeal than the works of John Grisham, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and J.K. Rowling. Yet the manuscripts they wrote before they became famous--all eventually hugely successful--were all repeatedly rejected. John Grisham's manuscripts for A Time to Kill was rejected by twenty-six publishers; his second manuscript, for The Firm, drew interest from publishers only after a bootleg copy circulating in Hollywood drew a $600,000 offer for the movie rights. Dr. Seuss's first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by twenty-seven publishers. And J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by nine. Then there is the other side of the coin--the side anyone in the business knows all too well: many authors who had great potential but never made it, John Grishams who quit after the first twenty rejections or J.K. Rowlings who gave up after the first five. After his many rejections, one such writer, John Kennedy Toole, lost his hope of ever getting his novel published and committed suicide. His mother persevered, however, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces was published; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has sold nearly 2 million copies."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"A few years ago The Sunday Times of London conducted an experiment. Its editors submitted typewritten manuscripts of the opening chapters of two novels that had won the Book Prize--one of the world's most prestigious and most influential awards for contemporary fiction--to twenty major publishers and agents. One of the novels was In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature; the other was Holiday by Stanley Middleton. One can safely assume that each of the recipients of the manuscripts would have heaped praise on the highly lauded novels had they known what they were reading. But the submissions were made as if they were the work of aspiring authors, and none of the publishers or agents appeared to recognize them. How did the highly successful works fare? All but one of the replies were rejections. The exception was an expression of interest in Middleton's novel by a London literary agent. The same agent wrote of Naipaul's book, 'We...thought it was quite original. In the end though I'm afraid we just weren't quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.'
"The author Stephen King unwittingly conducted a similar experiment when, worried that the public would not accept his books as quickly as he could churn them out, he wrote a series of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Sales figures indicated that even Stephen King, without the name, is no Stephen King. (Sales picked up considerably after word of the author's true identity finally got out.) Sadly, one experiment King did not perform was the opposite: to swathe wonderful unpublished manuscripts by struggling writers in covers naming him as the author. But even if Stephen King, without the name, is no Stephen King, then the rest of us, when our creative work receives a less-than-Kingly reception, might take comfort in knowing that the differences in quality might not be as great as some people would have us believe."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"It is no tragedy to think of the most successful people in any field as superheroes. But it is a tragedy when a belief in the judgment of experts or the marketplace rather than a belief in ourselves causes us to give up, as John Kennedy Toole did when he committed suicide after publishers repeatedly rejected his manuscript for the posthumously best-selling Confederacy of Dunces. And so when tempted to judge someone by his or her degree of success, I like to remind myself that were they to start over, Stephen King might be only a Richard Bachman and V. S. Naipaul just another struggling author...What I've learned, above all, is to keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized. For even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success."
Current Mood: optimistic
Current Music: Goncho: "Si te Digo la Verdad"