On Tuesday of this week, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. The Booker is one of literature’s most prestigious prizes. It comes with a cheque for £50,000 but, more importantly, recognition and a rush on book sales for the winning author.
Before Tuesday not many people had heard of Marlon James. I certainly hadn’t. On Wednesday morning he was all over the TV, newspapers, the Internet. I like to read novels that have won or been shortlisted for the Booker. In fact I’m reading one right now – Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which was shortlisted in 1996. (The greatest Booker winner of them all is without doubt Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which won in 1985. I reread it a few months ago and it swept me away all over again).
So, here’s the thing about Marlon James, since last night lauded the world over by the literati and now gracing the windows of book shops across the English speaking world. His first novel was rejected by publishers 78 times. Seventy-eight times. Can you imagine? 78 times you send your novel, with its pitch and synopsis out into the world, hopeful that the publisher will think it’s as good as you think it is. And 78 times you get a rejection letter. Sorry, your book isn’t any good, it’s not what we’re looking for right now, it has potential but. 78 times to be told the novel you have sweated over, lost sleep over, gone insane over, is just not good enough.
What is remarkable about Marlon James is not that he has written a vast 700-page novel that Booker judges unanimously deemed the best book written in the English language this year (although that is remarkable in itself). What is remarkable is that Marlon James didn’t give up. Not after the first rejection or the second. Not after the tenth or the twentieth or the fiftieth when family, friends and his inner demons must surely have been telling him to move on, forget about it, do something else with his life. He carried on. He picked up his pen and started all over again. And then hope and self belief overcame self doubt long enough for him to send his next book out into the world.
I know what rejection feels like. It’s a punch in the stomach. I’ve had my fair share of rejection from publishers and newspaper and magazine editors over the past couple of years. For every article I’ve successfully published I’ve had five or six rejected (maybe more…I should probably count them up). I’ve sometimes ended up publishing in publications I didn’t want to be in, or publishing my stuff for free, because I reckoned the publicity and having something new to add to my writing portfolio was worth not getting paid. Not getting paid, however, does not put food on the table.
I received a rejection email in January for a book I had spent a long time writing. It was June before I could bring myself to read the rest of the email. Stupid me, because the comments were actually quite positive – telling me what I could do to improve, rather than what I had done wrong – although perhaps those five months of distance gave me the perspective to see the book through the publisher’s eyes.
Article rejection is easier. Articles are shorter and I don’t invest so much time and emotion into them. But the rejection is still soul destroying. So I try again. I pitch my idea elsewhere, I rewrite the article, I rewrite the pitch. I’ve often had four or five rejections for an article before I get an acceptance. In fact, I’ve got something (paid!) coming out in the next few days that has taken months and months of pitching and repitching, reminding editors of earlier emails, and on and on. Writing is the easy part. The blood, sweat and tears come in trying to get my writing out into the world.
I don’t think many people have the tenacity of Marlon James. To face 78 rejections and still believe in oneself takes some doing. Following his story over the past few days has filled me with hope and optimism on the one hand and despair and pessimism on the other. Optimistically, I think that if my writing is good enough it will get published if I can only persevere and keep believing in myself. Pessimistically, I think of how Marlon James could have packed it all in, and A Brief History of Seven Killings would never have been.
But I think we should all take heed of Marlon James. No matter what your passion or dream in life, if you are tenacious then some day you might just reap the reward you deserve. Despite the rejections, I can’t stop writing, because I love to write. And I keeping hopefully sending my writing to publishers because I believe in what I write and hope that others will believe in it too.