“I write this calmly enough, but really I was and am very upset about it and think they may have treated me very badly. Of course, it may be that this novel is much worse than my others, though they didn’t say so, giving their reason for rejecting it as their fear with the present cost of book production etc. etc. they doubted whether they could sell enough copies to make a profit.”
So wrote British novelist Barbara Pym in 1963 to her poet friend Philip Larkin. From 1950 to 1961 six of Pym’s novels had been successfully published, but her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by her publisher and all others that she queried. “It seems nobody could ever like my kind of writing again,” she wrote in a letter in 1970.
She continued to write but in a publishing desert. Then in 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked literary celebrities to name the most underrated writers of the previous 75 years. Both Larkin and Lord David Cecil named Pym, and her career took off again, two unpublished novels snapped up and her previous work reissued.
I admire Pym not only for her brilliant novels but also because of her courage. No one wanted her work but she kept writing, and in her own way, never bowing to trends with the hope of pleasing the marketing needs of a publisher.
I too have known rejection. For two years my manuscript for Always Gardenia circulated the NYC publishing houses. My agent believed in the book and in me, but we received nineteen rejections.
Esteemed editors said nice things about the book. None wanted it. After the first few “lovely-but-no-thanks” emails, I would weep as each fresh one landed in my inbox.
I longed for the status of being published by a traditional New York City house. I fantasized about my title on a famous publisher’s website, a review in The New York Times Book Review, an elegant author and editor lunch at a swanky restaurant in Manhattan (though I don’t drink martinis). Oh, and a crisp royalty check in my mailbox!
But after two years and no takers, I decided, after much emotional deliberation, to “break up” with my agent. Time was wasting; I wanted to hold my novel in my hands before I was hunched over in a wheelchair some day in assisted living . . .
I did not want to “independently publish” (the classier way of saying “self-publish”) Always Gardenia, but I didn’t want to shove the manuscript back into my file cabinet either. So in September 2017 I let go of my NYC publishing house fantasies and started my DIY novel project.
I think this is what Barbara Pym would do, were she writing today. She’d ignore the shunning of the publishing world and put her books into print herself, using what current-day technology has to offer and connecting with eager readers.
On March 9, 2018 –the 34th birthday of our firstborn son—I held my novel in my hands.
I’ll share details next week.
Barbara Pym quote: Larkin, P (1987) “The Rejection of Barbara Pym” in Salwak, D (eds) The Life and Work of Barbara Pym, Palgrave MacMillan, London.