The Rejection Letter

18 Jun

Being a writer, I am very well accustomed to that notorious instrument of negation known as “the rejection letter.” When you consider the use of the term, you have to agree that it is a sniveling, self-pitying sort of word, conjuring the image of the writer as a sort of ingénue tearing his/her hair, passionately engaged in the writing of complicated, important tracts, passed over by film shits and pussel-gutted publishers, allegedly because, a) they are only interested in money, or, b) they have no interest in artistic expression as a valuable thing in its own right.

The truth is not quite as simple. The rejection letter is not really a rejection of someone’s writing, it is actually more likely to be a polite “Thanks, I’m busy.” Publishers and film shits, as anyone else, like to feel that they are calling the shots. They want to be originators, not receive proposals that might require them to read or be open to someone else. Let’s say a film shit comes up with the idea of optioning a book about Romantic poetry in order to make a thriller. While this may strike one as a bit of a non-starter, it remains true that the film shit in question will invest a great deal of money into his/her brainchild. But woe to the writer who comes up with the same project and tries to bring it to the attention of the same or any other film shit. They will all laugh, while the writer sits wringing his/her hands, wondering why no one can see the brilliance of the concept. But, as I am trying to explain here, the failure of the proposition is not that the project is below par or redundant. The failure, in fact, is that the writer has to be prepared to act in accordance with other people’s ideas. What this effectively means is that if writers want to achieve success – if they want to live in nice houses overlooking the water, and sit on terraces drinking decent wine and discussing art with clever friends, before popping out in brand-new hybrids to pick up their clever, lovely children from private schools – they have to be prepared to write stories tailored to the requirements of others. By others I obviously mean film shits or pussel-gutted publishers. And in order to do this, they have to enter into little bands of creative fellowship, befriending film shits and going to parties with them and cultivating their rarefied company.

The likelihood nowadays that a film is “based on a book by” is really little more than a desire on the part of the film shit to “choose” a story to be made into a film. There are armies of screenwriters out there who’d love to write a script “based on their brain,” but unfortunately this goes very much against the desire of the financier or producer shit to expand into the traditional role of the artist in “coming up with a concept.” Such shits can now decide in advance that a film will be about a bunch of dwarf fighters killing a dragon or a lesbian detective with Asberger disorder – merely on the basis of a book they can skim through in a few hours, then acquire the film rights for the price of a small Mercedes.

What this points to, one might argue, is that the role of the originating creator in art (or media) needs updating. It is no longer effective for writers to live solitary lives dreaming up stories. They need to raise their profile in an institutional sense. Media and the arts is one of the most rigidly controlled of all industries. In many business sectors, managers and leaders will give someone with a good idea a chance to take it forward, but film shits and pussel-gutted publishers are allergic to any such risks. They read CVs more assiduously than any banker. They give the jobs to their friends, or they give the jobs to those (however mediocre) who can demonstrate that they have done similar jobs before. This state of play is largely dictated by financiers, because they know that a decent film concept will only radically fail if someone tries to do something radical with it. Better a pair of mediocre, safe hands.

Originality or new concepts are not even in question when projects are set in motion. That’s why I say “think again” to writers out there who feel that their ideas have been rejected – because their ideas have not at all been rejected. It’s much worse – they have not even been considered. It is the artists themselves that have been rejected. Once, at an industry seminar I attended, a BBC executive admitted that he would spend more time considering a three-word proposal from Ken Loach than a well written, carefully angled 3-page outline by someone he had never heard of.

What this amounts to, in my view, is that media/the arts have now entered an era, which might be described as “institutional.” The idea of autonomous genius simply does not exist any more, it is an anomaly only applied in fields such as science or computing. I think it is an important distinction to make, because the genius concept has been at the foundation of the arts for well over two hundred years. The 60s are gone, flower power and crazy, drug-fueled fantasies and eccentrics and desperadoes are no longer artists in any operative sense of the word. It’s over.  Artists now have to be clean-cut, smart, adaptable, media-savvy, and willing to tow the line.

Publishers and agents are interested in how many Twitter followers writers have, how many Facebook friends. Social media channels are burgeoning with frenzied writers copying links to obscure reviews or mentions of their even more obscure productions. But in my view if they really want to get somewhere this cannot be enough. They must show their genitalia in public or throw eggs at journalists, or, most cleverly of all, speak out energetically in favor of global warming. What I mean is, they need to establish an interesting identity and think of a way of making the public take notice.

Let’s be clear about this. Writing is never really obscure. It can be bad, certainly. But obscurity does not necessarily mean that a piece of writing is inaccessible, only that for a range of possible reasons it has not been read. In David Mamet’s play “Speed-the-Plow” we can see for ourselves just how obscure it can all be, when film shits conspire among friends to come up with a concept for a film.  And yet, this is precisely how films are made and books commissioned. We are not living in a meritocracy, we are living in a fraternity.

There are still a few old-school writing personalities knocking about, but they are getting old and soon they’ll be gone. In their place, society will be filled with a new class of writers. In the interest of continuity I will call them “writer shits.”

One Response to “The Rejection Letter”


  1. In praise of the idiosyncratic … | We crashed the gate doing 98 - June 29, 2015

    […] (For more on rejection by traditional publishers, see Henning Koch’s most recent post.) […]

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