The Importance of Being Rejected

This is an article I wrote for the NSW Writers’ Magazine Newswrite back in 2011. The publishing world has changed profoundly in the last eight years, but I stand by the article I wrote at that time…

 

The Importance of Being Rejected: The Destiny Police and the Digital Future

As aspiring writers, we’re always hearing stories about famous books which were rejected a hundred times until some brave, inspired publisher was able to perceive the unique and wondrous genius that all the others had missed, and the writer lived happily ever after.

Occasionally these stories are true (or at least true-ish – Harry Potter anyone?) – more often they are not. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve heard people insist that The Lord of the Rings was rejected again and again before Professor Tolkien finally got his tome across the line, when the simple fact is: LOTR was commissioned after the stunning success of The Hobbit.

As usual, the ‘truth’ would lie somewhere in between (and a draft accepted by one publisher might be very different from the draft rejected by others), but the subtext behind these stories is dangerously seductive for the rejected writer, and that is: that publishers get it wrong.

“Good God!” thinks Reggie Reject. “If they got it wrong with Harry Potter or LOTR…no wonder they rejected my book!”

Rejection slips are painful – especially those impersonal two sentence emails: not suitable for our list at this time etc – so it is certainly a small comfort to realise that the book was only rejected because it was read (or not read) by some hayseed chewing philistine who trips on his/her knuckles when walking up stairs. But isn’t it amazing how many of these same philistines work in all the publishing houses?

And the agencies.

They’re all wrong.

No they’re not. The painful truth, which any writer capable of growing and improving must embrace, is that 99.937 percent of the slush pile has less literary merit than rat droppings.

I have been Reggie Reject more often than most, but once I stopped being defensive and accepted that everything I’d ever written was unmitigated, pointless drivel, I was ready to start making progress.

* * *

When I finished my first novel, back in 1997, I was exhilarated. I knew I had created a masterpiece and that the world would soon be smashing down my door, thrusting contracts at me and driving trucks full of money up to my house. I used to have this wonderful daydream where I signed away the movie rights in a magnificent office in Manhattan, and then settled down to enjoy a perfect life of writing, travelling and world acclaim.

The first rejection slip, I read with amusement – it was their loss. The second I read with bewilderment – two rejections? Was the world going mad? As the rejection slips piled up, I began to realise that the problem was far worse than just the ignorance and stupidity of the readers. The real problem was that the literary world was not ready for my genius.

Of course, the reading public were ready for it – clamouring for it. All my friends said it was good! And they shared my contempt for the evil powers-that-be, sitting complacent in their ivory towers with nothing better to do than trample the dreams of inspired, original writers. The Destiny Police.

As you can see, this way madness lies.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up. I started writing another novel, and gradually realised something wonderful: I actually knew what I was doing.

You need to write to learn how to write. Having written the first book, I had learned a few things – like how to set up the various story threads and start weaving them together; how to drop a plot kicker into a group of characters (and readers) who think they know where the story’s going. Best of all, I had found my natural storytelling voice.

Having learnt these things, I was then forced to reflect upon my first book. Maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I had originally thought? I decided to re-read it and immediately started wincing and cringing at the purple prose and ham-fisted imagery. It had its good points, but it needed a lot of work (as some of those hated rejection slips had intimated).

This was a key moment in my development as a writer – realising that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. (At least, not yet.)

My second novel (a comedy about conspiracy theories) was finished, bizarrely enough, around 10 pm on 11 September 2001. The next morning, I learned about the horrific events in New York and realised the planes were hitting the towers around about the exact moment I was hitting the ultimate full stop. Well that’s just great…I finally write a decent novel and the world comes to an end! Conspiracy?

This time I went much closer. The publishers still rejected me but a few were quite encouraging. One fellow even tried to get it up at the publishing committee but was outvoted. Foiled again!

But the message was clear: several publishers and a couple of agents wanted to see more of my stuff. I was on the right track.

* * *

My third novel was accepted by the first fiction publisher I showed it to.

In the wake of the disappointment of my second book going so close, I took a couple of years off writing novels and started dabbling with screenplays, which taught me a lot about character arcs and how to tell a story with the minimum possible words. And it was great for my dialogue.

This time, when I went back to novels (my first love), I was a much tighter storyteller with a strong established voice. I understood the interplay of characterisation and plot and I really knew how to pace a story and tease the readers along. I also did something I had never tried before: instead of wallowing in my esoteric ‘art’, I wrote about something that other people might enjoy. In other words, I deliberately targeted a specific readership and set out to create a commercial success.

Mr Cleansheets was published in April 2010 by Vulgar Press, a small Melbourne publisher. This is the stuff of dreams – the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. All that work – all those countless hours, hammering away in lonely obscurity with only rejection slips to keep me warm – all leading up to the magical moment of a publisher saying: Yes.

People sometimes ask me: was it hard to get published? And I think: no…Mr Cleansheets was snapped up straight away. So that was another lesson: if you’ve got the right product, it’s easy to get published. If you don’t, it’s impossible.

* * *

To return to my original point – I am now a published writer with some small profile in the mainstream and a fan base who keep asking when my next book is coming out. It took 13 years longer than I had hoped, back in 1997, but if I pick up my first book these days, I can’t read two sentences without vomiting blood. And yet, 14 years ago, I thought it was brilliant.

I have finally understood why rejection is so important for the publishing and writing industry. Without rejection, writers have no incentive to improve – to develop into the writers they are capable of becoming. There is no way I could have produced the right product back in 1997.

And this is why I fear for the online future. People argue that the capacity of new writers to bypass the traditional publishing houses and publish their own books on the net is ‘democratic’ and opens up the reading public to alternative voices that might otherwise have never been heard.

It’s hard to argue against that without sounding like an elitist wanker, but what this means is that the slush pile (still utterly dreadful, for the most part) will no longer be euthanased by the Destiny Police. It will be alive – a roaring cacophony which drowns and out-clamours any voice worth hearing.

Even worse – far worse – new writers will no longer be rejected. They will self-publish first drafts and never learn from their mistakes, and voices which may have developed in time into something wonderful will remain halting and unrefined. The whole future, not just of publishing, but of writing itself is in peril.

And if writing dies, then reading will die. And if reading dies then knowledge will die, enlightenment will fade and the world will become ripe for the plucking by neo-medieval warlords who…

Sorry. (There goes that ‘art’ again!)

It is imperative that the online future includes publishers still insisting on quality and filtering out the undeveloped and the impure – forcing writers to reassess and lift their games if ever they are to be raised up out of obscurity and penury into that ivory tower of popular acclaim.

And you all thought the Destiny Police were the bad guys…

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Sexual Politics 2019

I sometimes look at young girls in their 20s, leading lives of unprecedented equality and freedom, and lament the fact they seem to know nothing of the fight their ancestors went through to win the freedom they now take almost for granted.

But in a way, that’s how it should be. True equality is unconscious. It doesn’t need to be measured or weighed or even valued – it is sucked in with mother’s milk and seems as natural as earth, air, fire and water.

Because women have had it pretty bad for all of human history – and still do in most cultures outside the first world. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that improvements have started happening and to give a clearer picture of exactly what I mean, let’s take a snapshot of the condition of women in England in the year 1800.

The class system was real and there was no welfare state. Very few people had the vote and those were only propertied white men with an annual income that would see them in the top few percent of earners. Women, even aristocratic women, had no right to vote and no right to own property once they were married.

Women of lesser degree, if not married to a man with an income, were forced into penury which very often meant prostitution.

Women had no control of their reproductive systems so life, for most, was a predictable series of events: limited education – marriage – several pregnancies (any of which could be fatal) – motherhood – grand-motherhood – death. That’s not to judge these institutions in any way but that was the extent of a woman’s lot, which didn’t change until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 – the first piece of legislation to recognise the (very limited) rights of women.

South Australia, New Zealand and eventually other jurisdictions gave women the vote over the next 60 years, but the true clincher – the biggest change in male/female relations since the dawn of time – was the contraceptive pill, which became legal in Australia in 1962.

For the first time, women had control of their bodies in a way men had always had – and had never had to think about. This led to profound societal changes over the next few generations, which nevertheless still carried the sexual political baggage of millennia.

Marriage, for example, is very much a pre-pill institution – a licence to create extra mouths to feed in a village of limited agrarian resources. We no longer live in that limited village and sex is no longer a deterministic path to pregnancy. But we still live with so much of the cultural debris from the glacier of human progress.

Marriage is an obvious one but there are plenty of more subtle indicators around the division of labour. Women (including those in professional work) still do more than their share of household chores. And watch what happens at just about any dinner party in the first world. It tends to be the women who get up to clear the table while the men sit around talking. This is not an absolute rule, but it tends to be true. And all those men being waited upon probably regard themselves as entirely reconstructed.

So, when you consider political rights, access to the professions, independent incomes and general opportunity to live as one would like, we’ve come a long way but we’re not quite there when it comes to real equality.

All of that is preliminary to what I really want to talk about.

In the wake of the Me Too movement there have been any number of developments that throw further spotlight onto the ongoing depredations of men with unequal bargaining power, but is the long overdue correction starting to go too far?

I read an article the other day about university research into the objectification of women and how they felt about it. Let me be clear – any sort of unwanted sexual attention is unpleasant, and if it continues, after non-encouragement, becomes creepy and ultimately criminal.

But where do we draw the line?

The continuity of the human race is utterly dependent on men and women continuing to be sexually attracted to each other. In a perfect world, people would only be attracted to people who reciprocated. But our world is far from perfect.

People are constantly attracted to others who do not reciprocate – and part of growing up is learning to deal with rejection. But rejection can only happen in the context of unilateral attraction, and how does attraction commence?

Through objectification.

For the point of argument, let’s limit the discussion to heterosexual people of childbearing age. It is (almost) axiomatic that these people are (at least initially) sexually attracted to others on the basis of their physical appearance.

It starts with objectification, which becomes subjectification only through experience and reciprocation.

Without objectification the race would die.

I would regard myself as more reconstructed than the average male chauvinist dinosaur. I fully appreciate the role of radical views in normalising the majority to socio-political evolution, but let’s not over-correct in the pursuit of equality.

If men and women are too scared to fancy each other, then that’s an end to us.

Let’s not overthink this.

White Line Fever

George Burgess was just given 9 weeks suspension in the NRL for a pretty ugly eye gouge.

I’m going to say that’s not enough.

His really nasty eye poke – which could so easily have cost Robbie Farah his sight in one eye – copped a measly 9 weeks, which seems suspiciously neat when you think he will be eligible to play in the finals, which Souths are all but certain to make.

And this is a guy with form in the eye-gouging arena! Why isn’t the NRL making an example of this idiot? Some might suggest my use of the word idiot is a tad harsh but the reality is – he was busted for eye-gouging only a few months ago in a test against New Zealand, and clearly he hasn’t learned from the sanction.

That, in my opinion, is the definition of an idiot.

Mind you, if there are bigger idiots, it is the NRL judiciary.

Do they not realise that they are setting the sanction bar for the entire league? The vast majority of players never get to strut their stuff on national television. The vast majority of players from under 6s through to All Age play their footballing lives in obscurity without the television cameras on hand to track their actions in minute detail.

That means they can get away with murder, and on the off-chance they get busted – they’re looking at maybe 9 weeks out after jeopardising some poor bastard’s eyesight. A life sentence against a 9 week holiday.

I’m saying Burgess, after two such incidents, should be rubbed out of the game – never to play again. Why should players with the rest of their lives to live – be subjected to George Burgess and his evil ocular tactics?

Why should children be risking permanent injury due to George Burgess’s example?

Why should obscure players in Group 7 or Group 15 be exposed to life-shattering injury so that George Burgess can be rewarded with the (likely) prospect of finals football in 2019?

The even bigger question is this…

What exactly happens to footballers when they cross the white line?

I include myself in this question. I’m a pacifist and lawyer in my 50s – still playing O45s football. I’m totally opposed to violence and I’ve thrown only one punch in my adult life (which missed), and that was on the football field, the week my first wife announced she was leaving.

Mind you, throwing a punch at someone (who totally deserved it) is a lot different from gouging the eyes of some helpless bastard with his arms pinned. Just putting my own evil in context…

Still, when people cross the white line, they change. Violent acts they would never dream of in polite society become acceptable, even normative, in a sporting contest. This has happened even to me so, while I am disgusted with George Burgess’s actions, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the fact that brains change in accordance with context.

A mate of mine is in the army commandos and I have occasionally asked him about what it’s like going into action. This is a fellow who leads a comparatively normal life in Australian civil society, but on several occasions has been asked to go into unbelievable peril on behalf of our politicians and their geo-commercial masters.

This takes one hell of a brain change – dealing with life/death problems every second of every day for several months. And how do they re-adjust when they’re back home?

Is it any wonder that so many veterans are dealing with PTSD and other complications when they are so constantly transitioning between observing the speeding laws, and some cunt trying to kill them?

But I digress…

To get back to the NRL judiciary, you got it wrong guys. Robbie Farah could’ve lost an eye because George Burgess was trying to win a sleazy advantage for his team in a game that would otherwise have been forgotten.

The fact that George Burgess will likely play finals football this year is just wrong.

Between the Wolves

The Lowy Institute’s latest report features some interesting data regarding Australia’s perception of China and America. In particular, that our confidence in President Xi to do the right thing has dropped to 38%, but our confidence in President Trump to do the right thing has dropped to a measly 20%.

(I’m surprised it’s that high.)

As America rattles its sabre at Iran, China continues to over-build its influence in the Pacific and Africa, and throws its weight around in the South China Sea. Both are engaged in a potentially crippling tariff war and Australia stands between them, tugging at their coats and saying: “Guys! C’mon guys!”

Because that seems to be the extent of our diplomacy, while always seeming to err on the side of the Americans (whom we trust only half as much as the Chinese).

The problem for us is that China and America are our two most important trading partners and we can’t afford to upset either of them while our current prosperity depends on them.

That’s right – prosperity.

The great fortune of Australia is that we are a tiny little population (by world standards) occupying a vast land mass bulging with minerals. The quarry we call home also just happens to be incredibly beautiful and is a safe, strong democracy (for now) – which makes it a desirable tourist location. Add to that the fact that we are a comparatively clever country, and it all adds up to Australia being (approximately) the 12th biggest economy in the world, shared by just 25 million people.

That is the secret to our prosperity.

And yet it’s all being jeopardised by our geopolitical and trading position – approximately halfway between two slavering wolves.

If we want to protect our livelihoods, and maybe also enhance the safety and happiness of the rest of the world, it is time we started to use our influence to moderate the behaviour of America and China. We need them both and we need them to get on.

As far as America is concerned, we need to assert our independence. Does that mean tearing up the ANZUS Treaty? Probably not, but we should never go running into American wars just because we’re allies. If that maniac Trump wants to start WW3 in Iran we should be the first pulling him back. Our loud and public disapproval might just be enough to give him pause for thought.

It might help with China also.

I suspect they see us right now as America’s bumbling sidekick, but if we showed our independence of America (especially when America is acting so irrationally) then China might see us as an individual voice rather than just another tuneless tenor in the US choir.

The actions of both America and China are destabilising the world right now at a time when the most powerful nations are needed to show leadership. The problems of the world, including climate change, overpopulation and massive economic inequality are getting worse and leading us down a slippery slope towards oblivion.

I reckon we’re screwed within two decades unless we get our noses all pointing in the same direction to resolve these problems, and us just tugging at the coats of the wolves is not helping.

Both America and China need us, for now, so now is the time we must assert ourselves to convince them to use their strength to help turn it all around.

What we most need is vision and if the Americans and Chinese can’t see the possibilities for themselves then we will go up in both of their estimations if we at least have the guts to throw some light on the problems.

Religion and Politics

As I have written before, the Israel Folau case is not about religion.

It is a contractual dispute which he is trying to characterise as a denial of religious rights in misguided attempt to claim the moral high ground.

I was just disgusted to hear about his GoFundMe campaign. A man as wealthy as Israel Folau does not need public support, especially when he’s deliberately conflating the issues of contractual obligation and freedom of speech and religion.

Accordingly, I was delighted to hear that GoFundMe had closed him down for being in breach of their inclusivity policy. They did not want their site to be used to support freedom of hate speech.

Now we learn that another crowd funding effort has been started on Israel’s behalf by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), who are kicking in a hundred grand to get the ball rolling.

My question is why?

The ACL are not entirely stupid. They would fully understand that the substantive issue at stake has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with a refusal to comply with a contractual obligation not to bring the game into disrepute in a manner against which he had previously and specifically been warned.

So why are they buying into the dispute when they ought to know that it really has nothing to do with religion?

Could it be they just want the publicity of being linked with (for the moment) a major celebrity? Like a shirt front sponsor?

Or could it be they are trying to pour petrol onto the linked debate regarding so-called religious freedom in the wake of the marriage equality outcome? Any forum will do, even if it’s likely to be a loser?

As I’ve said before, this also is a conflation of issues. The fact of marriage equality has nothing to do with the freedom of religion. Since when does a couple’s right to marry have anything to do with another person’s right to practise the religion of their choice?

It does not.

What the religious right (of whom the ACL are a major player) really want is the legal right to go on saying nasty things about the people they don’t like and to discriminate against them in the workplace and in schools (and refuse to sell them wedding cakes).

They will take any opportunity to further this crusade, and linking themselves with Israel Folau’s petulant cause sounds like good business.

What this demonstrates to me, however, is the complete hypocrisy of the ACL. They want to further the interests of Christianity, but in so doing they want to spend a hundred thousand dollars on just one rich person’s ill-conceived court case.

I, for one, would have a lot more respect for the ACL, if they gave that money to people who genuinely needed it.

As Jesus himself (apparently) said:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19: 24

I’ll bet the directors of the ACL are all rich.

Just like Israel Folau.

The Root of Our Culture

What is the root of our culture?

Where is the well from which our deepest values spring?

What qualities of men or women do we most admire, respect and revere?

I ask these questions because I’m still shaking my head at the fact that some American nobody will make enough money from semi-streaking at the Champions League Final to retire by the time she is thirty.

According to experts, this woman (I refuse to name her) by running onto the field in the female version of a Borat posing pouch (advertising an internet porn site) will make about $US 6 million.

In fact, I’m not judging her. Good luck to her if she is able to gauge the zeitgeist and strike while the iron’s hot.

I’m judging everyone else.

I’m judging the people who make it possible for her to make so much money from her criminal and opportunistic actions.

Why on earth are we rewarding this sort of behaviour? Why isn’t there legislation to prevent her benefiting from her crime? Because it will only encourage others to do the same.

When you understand that anyone on planet earth with just $32k is actually in the top 1% of wealth, it is sobering indeed to think that, the way our culture, values and economy works, this 22 yo non-entity will make $6 million for a ten second semi-clad gesture.

As I said, good luck to her, but all of you out there who joined her Instagram (or whatever social media) following…

You disgust me.

And I say that as a person who is very slow to judge anyone or anything. God knows I’m an arsehole of the first water but even I will raise an eyebrow at the idea of people being rewarded – obscenely rewarded – for nothing.

Fame ought to be allocated to people who’ve actually done something that makes them extraordinary – not just frittered away on unprincipled zeros able to manipulate social media algorithms.

When you think that there are people out there devoting their lives to looking after the sick; building things; generating art, music and literature; upholding rights or fighting for rights they don’t have; and doing all these things in comparative obscurity, it deeply disturbs me that so much attention is given to someone who didn’t even get all her kit off.

This very ordinary woman has become rich and famous in the same week that millions are fighting for their rights in Hong Kong, Julian Assange is being deported to America, and everyone in the world with less than $32k continues to lead lives of exploitation, darkness and misery.

I genuinely think we’ve really fucked this up.

Rocketman: The Elton Movie

So many people tried to tell me how amazing Bohemian Rhapsody was.

It wasn’t bad, but I did think it was a bit of a lame and sanitised homage to Freddy with insufficient detail on the others (especially Brian May). It was also a tad bland – but if you pushed me to really identify what was wrong, I would have struggled.

Until tonight.

Tonight I saw Rocketman – the Elton John story – and was blown away. The missing ingredient in Bohemian Rhapsody was magic – and Rocketman had it in bucketloads.

* * *

The biggest mistake Bohemian Rhapsody made was this – they forgot they were making a film. They were so busy trying to be accurate and fair they even made Remi Malek wear a stupid dental prosthesis which stopped him from talking properly. It’s like hiring George Clooney to play Chewbacca! The end result was a bland documentary that was mildly entertaining, but it didn’t feel like a movie.

In very stark contrast – you knew from the opening moments that Rocketman was entirely different. Gorgeously shot – dramatic – other-worldly – it straight away took you inside Elton’s life experience from his confronting and unsentimental childhood all the way to his breakdown in 1990.

Every step of the journey was told through the prism of his songs and it was just masterful the way Bernie Taupin’s lyrics were occasionally used to counterpoint the on-screen action. There were several intensely moving scenes crafted around Elton’s song-writing even as other dramatic segues were occurring in his life – not least the development of his song-writing relationship with Bernie and his marriage to Renata – which was over in a flash.

In these comparatively liberated days it’s easy to forget that homosexuality was still against the law back in the 60s and 70s when Elton was growing up – it must have been hard being a public figure (and sex symbol) all the while knowing the fate of (say) Oscar Wilde was still a possibility. Elton’s sexuality was clearly a major part of who he was growing up and the film dealt very tastefully with that without getting either preachy or overly graphic.

Probably the toughest aspect of the film was the way it dealt with his father and mother. That was unflinching and raw and I couldn’t help but admire the restraint with which those relationships were portrayed. It would have been easy for the writers to really put the boot in there but they held back while still giving you a powerful feel for Elton’s dignified devastation.

Elton must have been delighted with Taron Egerton’s performance. He was just superb and that pretty much sets the benchmark for a rock biopic portrayal. As does the movie itself. It will be a long, long time before another movie tells the story of a rock star or band without going too far down the bland documentary path or the overly fanciful and self-serving path.

Rocketman told a fantastic story in a fantastically cinematic way – giving the fans a wonderful insight into the creative process and the chaos behind the scenes. If I have one bone to pick, the film did fail to mention his greatest shame of all – being a Watford fan. But it would be churlish of me to criticise too much when I was so thoroughly entertained and educated.

I gave Bohemian Rhapsody 3 Stars – it did fairly well what it set out to do. Rocketman was way more ambitious and will be in my head a very long time indeed. I look forward to the writer and director now taking on David Bowie.

4.5 Stars (on the basis that I never give 5)