I’ve been re-reading Fight Club, and I was struck by a particular scene this time around–one that I couldn’t help but compare to the difficulty of getting your foot into the publishing industry’s door. The scene begins when the first Project Mayhem hopeful appears on the front porch of the house on Paper Street. The guy is standing at attention. He’s brought everything he’s been told to bring: shirt, shoes, mattress, mixing bowl. He’s the perfect recruit. But when Tyler Durden peeks down at him from the upstairs window, he says “Get rid of him. He’s too young.”
I ask how young is too young?
“It doesn’t matter,” Tyler says. “If the applicant is young, we tell him he’s too young. If he’s fat, he’s too fat. If he’s old, he’s too old. Thin, he’s too thin. White, he’s too white. Black, he’s too black.”
To the writers who are still trying to bang down the publishing industry’s door, this sounds familiar. To those of us already in the thick of it, it echos the inevitably snarling reviews we collect over time–reviews written, at times, by Jack’s inflamed sense of rejection. I could go on for thousands of words about the strange transition that comes with going from unpublished hopeful to published author. The rejection never goes away, it only shifts. The unpublished hopeful faces it by way of agency form letters: “we’re sorry, but we don’t represent writers who suck.” Published authors face it via faceless mob: “I can’t believe I read this trash; this person is the worst writer of all time… of. all. time.” You think I’m exaggerating? I’ve been called the worst writer of all time, and I’ve been in this industry for less than two years. By the end of my career, I expect to destroy marriages, corrupt children, and ruin entire lives by my books alone.
My point: people are going to think you suck. They’re going to try to cut you down. They’re going to do everything in their power to convince those around them that you’re the absolute worst. If you doubt me, type in your favorite author’s name into Amazon’s search bar and read the one-star reviews. On Goodreads, there’s an entire discussion dedicated to how The Great Gatsby is the worst book ever written and how Nabokov was a pervert for writing Lolita.
So what do you do? Ignore the noise. Me, personally, I avoid reading reviews–good or bad, but every once in a while I’ll run into one and it’ll sting. You–if you’re still banging on doors–set fire to the rejections or file them away in your when-I’m-famous folder and move on. Regardless of our position in this crazy industry, we have but one job: keep writing.
This is how Buddhist temples have tested applicants going back for bah-zillion years, Tyler says. You tell the applicant to go away, and if his resolve is so strong that he waits at the entrance without food or shelter or encouragement… then and only then can he enter and begin training.
You bang on the door until the hinges are loose and they can’t help but let you in. You keep writing books until they stop, think, and possibly wonder if maybe they had been too quick to judge, if maybe there was more to you than that debut novel they didn’t really like or your sophomore effort that wasn’t all that great.
You strengthen your resolve and move forward.
For the unpublished hopefuls, remember that if you do get that contract, the rejection will shift from industry to reader. And for those like me, who are published but still feel the occasional sting of a rabid review, it’s helpful to think that the most successful authors have the biggest mob of haters.
You won’t ever change everyone’s mind–rejection magnifies rather than goes away–but if you can’t handle getting into the club, you certainly can’t handle being a member.