This weekend I read an article about Donal Ryan, a widely-known author who had received 47 rejections for his novels, and I was soon prompted to share some stories of my own. Rejection is part of every artist’s life – in some cases, including my own, it is the norm. My first book, A Cultured Left Foot, was turned down by every publisher but one, and the person who accepted it didn’t even like football – he just liked the way that it was written. He retired just months later, and if he had not taken a chance on me then I might still be unpublished now.
Footballers who never quite made it in the professional game will often talk about “having had trials at Arsenal”, as if they were only a successful training session away from making it – for which they are generally mocked. Yet if you are an aspiring writer, you are, in some sense, on trial at Arsenal all the time. There are so many talented authors out there that success – that is to say, being published, let alone selling well – is frequently the most distant of dreams.
Why does this feel so poignant now, of all times? Well, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, quite by chance, I was looking back over some old emails and found all the messages I had sent out to promote my music. Dozens and dozens of them, only two of which were answered. If I cast my mind back carefully enough, I can even remember the optimism with which I dispatched them. I am amazed that I found the self-belief, to keep trying again in the face of such indifference.
The second reason is that, once again, I am about to start sending out some of my own writing to a fresh round of agents and publishers, and am currently summoning up the courage to do so. This time, I have written some fiction; a novel set in the near future in which a young black woman takes the lead, because I think that though young black women so often take the lead both socially and politically, they do not have nearly enough stories published about them. It is a very strange thing, having written a novel. You live with it for months, discussing its existence with almost no-one, and then when the time comes to offer it out into the world there is not a wild desire to share it but instead the sensation that you are about to step out stark naked in full view of the morning traffic.
I have written fiction for several years, and right now I am looking at one of my more recent efforts with some regret. About two years ago, I started to write Make Us Human, a novel about race and immigration in the UK, and didn’t finish it, for the reasons set out here. Given the current political climate, it might well have been an ideal novel to be pitching to agents now – and, to make me sigh a little more, the response to the first few chapters of that novel (which I posted online, also here) was both immediate and excellent. I had people I barely knew contacting me to tell me how much they wished I would finish it. I try not to look back too much over my work, but I do think that I paid the price for failing to persist with that story. As any writer knows, it is hard to pick up the thread and the energy of a narrative once it has been left alone for too long.
And where does this leave me now? Well, I think that I will have to continue posting out the novel that I wrote shortly after abandoning my attempt at Make Us Human. And I think that, to honour Make Us Human, I will have to keep posting it out until all options are exhausted, despite the many rejections that will inevitably come. I will do that because the most tragic thing as an artist is not failure; it is the refusal to try.