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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kerouac's Rejection Wisdom

An inspiring post over at Circe's Kitchen concerning our old friend Jack Kerouac. Here's a highlight:

Kerouac carried his unpublished novels around for seven years, including the ones that put him in the headlines, On the Road and Dharma Bums. Seven years of rejection left him exhausted and downtrodden so when fame finally arrived, he didn't know how to act. How do you suddenly revel in being the star when your light was pushed away for so long?

Still, it's a testament to human faith and courage that he held on for so long and was then able to leave something behind for us. When my writing starts to feel too small and circle-running, I turn to his instructions for inspiration. (The following is the partial list of his advice; the full length appears on the Wikipedia entry for Kerouac.)

Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

It's worth checking out the entire article for a list of the big K's inspiration when feeling down. Check it out here.


Anonymous said...

Between Town & City and On the Road, Kerouac didn't sell a single story or a poem, no article, not even a haiku. Nothing but the silence of rejection for 7 years in the prime of his life. If he was doing it today, in our supposedly enlightened age? It would be much more than 7, I think. Quite possibly never.

The only thing that saved him in the fifties was Sterling Lord, who was willing to take on way out stuff that was new and different. There were a few agents like him then. Well read and interested in literature. But the industry has changed ... what agents are doing that now, Nathan Bransford and Jonathan Lyons? Ryan Fischer-Harbage? Dan Conaway, Kate Lee, Jeff Kleinman, Donald Maas, Alex Glass, Kristin Nelson? No no no, everybody's worried about the first five pages, they want your novel to cap off at 90,000 words MAX and make sure your query is written just right, in perfect proportions, and with all the back-cover copy that will sufficiently "grab them" in just the right ways. Chick lit and vampires, "genre-bending" and "retelling of the classics" are the rules and gimmicks of the day. Oh, and whatever the latest trend is going to be next season. In other words, nobody wants a Kerouac and I don't think there are any agents in the business today who would take on a Jack Kerouac figure or its approximate equivalent, a guy with a trunk of manuscripts, mostly big crazy rambling ones, original and heartfelt works about childhood daydreams played out in the weedy fields where ghosts go running and time spent in supplication before the Holy Stations of the Cross and visions of ice cream and apple pie at lunch counters, stovecooking home Saturday afternoons in autumn and long rambling sketchtalks on the joy of railroad yards, forgotten bums, Christmas in New England, the pretty perkiness of girls peeked at through smeary fogtrodden laundromat windows, the old oral legends of French Canadians in Nashua New Hampshire and their workaday lives, have you all gone out of your mind? I doubt these people running the biz today would want to read that kind of stuff, much less represent it.

No way.

Anonymous said...

well, after the first comment, i don't have anything to say, except keep the frickin' faith.

Writer, Rejected said...

Right? That dude is eloquent!

Anonymous said...

and pretty harshly rejected, from the sound of it..

good luck

circe said...

Thanks for the mention!

Ok, I'll be a sappy New Age-y person here and say, you know, sometimes it's the journey that matters, not the destination.

*groan* Yeah, I know, I know, rejection sucks and sappy platitudes much don't help when you feel down. But if you don't write or create for your own joy, then why create at all? That's the energy that keeps us keepin' on.

Keep the faith, ya'll.

Anonymous said...

Please, seven years is nothing. Good lord, let's not use Saint Jack to wallow in our own misery, writers rejected. I'm down with railing at the system and making fun of pompous editors, but when people start channeling Kerouac, it starts to read a little creepy for my taste. I guess I'm not as pessimistic--nor as vainglorious--as you, first anonymous poster above.

I will agree that the rules are much too rigid and geared to "how is your book going to be marketed." And I have a particular beef against a certain "genre-bending" book published last year. Other than that, get a grip, man!

Writer, Rejected said...

But wallowing is what we do, fine sensuous spud. And, here at LROD, we do not discriminate according to religion or choice of religious icon. Have a little tolerance for the Kerouac worship; for some people, it's all they got.

Anonymous said...

For Seksy Tater, To the tune of Food Glorious Food:

"Vainglorious Veins! You writers are pussies!

Vainglorious Veins! Jack Kerouc's wussies!"

I don't know why....just because i want to celebrate the word "vainglorious," i guess.

Anonymous said...

"Other than that, get a grip, man!"

Get a grip on what, Mr. Potatohead? That the first five pages of Maggie Cassidy or Dr. Sax or Town & City or any of the Vanity books do not fit the mold and would be unattractive and boring, even completely incomprehensible, to most agents working in the business today? Seriously, yes, I'd say most agents now would give those pages a lame "Sorry, Mr. K, you're a good writer but unfortunately I am not in love with the story." They'd do the same to Proust, I'm sure of it. They have no interest in reading that kind of stuff -- just read the interviews of these agents today, go to a conference and listen to how they talk ... or just look at the kind of books they're pushing and the "amazing writer" of this week that they're drooling about (and look that writer up in a year or two). ICM, Writers House, Sterling Lord, William Morris, they're all the same. Same mentality, same kind of books. Same ideas for what makes a good "first novelist," same ideas about plot and structure, story and character. I'd love to see otherwise but I can provide no example of a book like those I've cited being published today. Can you?

Anonymous said...

Let me interject a suggestion into this debate.

JK's novels are more or less autobiography, hagiography - rambling ones at that. He simply changed the names and sold them as novels.

To answer the OP, who cites subjects and themes of those "novels", I would say yes, good luck snagging an agent enthusiastic about those subjects in fiction.

Perhaps at the time, one was permitted more leeway in fiction than non-fiction for certain things - such as rambling.

And this suggests the idea. Why not market it as memoir? Memoir is popular now. Change the names and say it's "to protect the innocent" or somesuch. Call them "confessionals" perhaps. It's been done. Tucker Max anyone??? Not to suggest that TM is in the same category as Kerouac, egads! But only to demonstrate that the concept works, and it can really sell. And non-fiction is so much easier to sell to begin with.

If JK were around today, would he be avoiding the novelist trap completely, instead selling his vast oeuvre as a set of memoirs?

Anonymous said...

So. Why would you say that about all agents now? I can truly conceive that some will be shallow. But aren't a few looking for greatness too?

Anonymous said...

An agent would probably read "On the Road" today and respond: "Your prose is vivid and energetic. That said, I think readers would be alienated by your stream-of-consciousness style. Sorry it's not a match."