Though Nava Atlas is best known as the author of many books on vegan vegetarian cooking, she also produces visual books on women’s issues, most recently The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life (2011). This lavishly illustrated book explores the writing lives of twelve classic women authors in their own words, with commentary on the relevance of their experiences to all women who love to write.
Rejection and the Literary Ladies: Overcoming the Hurt, Recognizing the Blessings
Rejection, we’ve been told, is part of the path to publication. We’re told to grow a tough hide and accept that most rejections are nothing personal. Even so, rejection can sting—even the bland “not looking at this time,” or “not right for our list.” It’s difficult to separate the rejection of one’s work from the rejection of one’s self. Every “no,” however bland, plants a seed of self-doubt. Occasionally, even in longtime relationships with publishers and editors, I’ve had book proposals quashed as not having enough commercial promise. Though I understood these to be purely business decisions, and not about my ability, my immediate reaction was always a resounding “Ouch!”.
In my book, The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, I explore the writing life through the experiences of twelve classic women authors. How comforting it was to learn that, even among classic authors, the experiences of self-doubt, fear of failure, and rejection are universal. A few of the Literary Ladies were spared the blows of rejection, while others were positively hammered by it.
Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary life was famously marked with rejection. Her most iconic classic, A Wrinkle in Time, beloved by generations of children and adults alike, was rejected by some forty publishers as being too dark for children. Her faith in the book held fast. After nearly giving up, it found a home and sweet vindication in the form of millions of copies sold and numerous awards.
Charlotte Brontë was as peeved as any author would be when her first novel, The Professor, met with outright rejection or cold silence as it made its way around the London publishing circle. Galling as this was, she didn’t sit idly by. Instead, she busied herself on her next project — as every sensible writer should. When a publisher finally saw enough merit in The Professor to invite Brontë to submit a different work for consideration, she had Jane Eyre at the ready. The publisher printed and published it in mere weeks, whereupon it became an immediate sensation, and a best seller.
L. M. Montgomery, best known for the Anne of Green Gables series, wrote in her memoir, “At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself...But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said, “I will succeed.” I believed in myself, and I struggled on, in secrecy and silence...”
Gaining courage from eventual acceptance of shorter works, Montgomery began submitting her first full-length work, Anne of Green Gables. Demoralized after a slew of rejections, she stashed the manuscript in a hatbox, and left it to languish. After a year or so, she steeled herself to try again. Though she struggled mightily with depression, Montgomery was clear in her mission to bring joy to others through her work, and that she did accomplish, not only with her most iconic Anne series, but her subsequent books as well.
Years later, musing on her path to publication, Montgomery recounted how a book she wrote early in her writing life, but clearly not from her heart, was soundly rejected. Though it hurt at the time, in hindsight, she recognized how lucky she was to have escaped getting locked into a niche that was wrong from her.
To be rejected for not being yourself, as Montgomery found out, can be a valuable gift to a writer, especially one just finding her voice. From Brontë’s experience it’s clear that it’s wise to continue working, rather than pining away for acceptance (in her case especially wise, as The Professor was published only after her death). And from Madeleine L’Engle’s experience we can take away a message that perseverance, coupled with faith in our work (accompanied by absolute honesty about its merits) is a path to eventual success.