January 27, 2013

Just Say No, Dammit


There was a time once, a long time ago now, when people had the guts to be straightforward. Remember that? Back then, if someone wasn’t much interested in what you were pitching they could just come right out and tell you to your face, and even if a knife fight resulted, at least you both knew you were being honest about it.

            Some twenty years back, just as an example, if you submitted a story to a magazine or a book manuscript to a publisher and they didn’t want it, a few weeks later your submission would be returned to you (so long as you included a stamped, self-addressed envelope), and a small typewritten note would be attached to the top page with a paperclip. Here’s what the note would say:

            “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it does not fit our needs at the present time.”

            That’s it. It was rarely personalized, it was never signed. In general it appeared to have been Xeroxed several thousand times and often it wasn’t even typed on a full sheet of paper—just a half sheet, or maybe only a slip eight and a half by three inches. But those two sentences said all they needed to say. They didn’t like it, they didn’t want it, and that’s all there was to it. There was no room for appeal. You might not like their response, but you had to respect it.

            Then along came “sensitivity training” and “anti-bullying” programs in the workplace and the schools, designed to assure the dumbest and most pathetic among us that every thought and feeling and idea they have is simply stupendous, and that no one should be allowed to tell them any different. As a result, rejection notes like that are apparently no longer possible. In today’s namby-pamby, sniveling, lawyer-prone world things are different. Every ego needs to be stroked every minute of the day. If you dare to tell someone that something they did was anything less than great, sparkling, and the absolute embodiment of earthly perfection you run the risk of hurting their feelings, and if you do that watch out—they’ll sue you for everything you’ve got. Shrinks cost money, you know, and the treatment for all that post-traumatic stress they’re suffering after your assault on their delicate personhood could go on for years. And even when that’s done there’s no guarantee they won’t come back and pump you full of lead for the offense.

            This is why I’m no longer willing to “take a look at” and “give my honest response to” something someone has written. It’s a fairly common request from friends and strangers alike and, foolish me, I used to take it at face value thinking they actually wanted to hear an honest assessment. Oh, no they didn’t, and when I had the sheer gall to give a straight opinion, well, let’s just say I stopped hearing from a lot of people. Just as well. Time was I thought, if they can’t take it they’re in the wrong fucking business. That no longer seems to be the case.

            Even official rejection letters from major publishers have changed dramatically. Instead of those two lines, rejection letters can now run for two or three pages. The first five or six paragraphs inform you that your book is the greatest thing they’ve ever read. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s touching and honest in a way they’ve never seen before. You’re brilliant, just brilliant—an absolutely unique stylist with a voice unlike any other. Why, you’re the Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived! Better than Dostoevsky! Better than Shakespeare! In fact, they’re going to be nominating you for the Nobel Prize! My god what a wondrous work of art you’ve created! We laughed! We cried! We went home and BURNED every other book in our library, as they won’t be necessary anymore!

            And so forth.

            Then the final paragraph begins with the phrase (it always begins with this phrase), “That being said, however . . . ”

            What follows that phrase is of course the big blow-off, and their real reason for writing you. But the thing I find really funny is that after heaping all of that praise on what is obviously a work of mind-boggling genius, they have to explain why they wouldn’t want to publish it. And this, I gotta say, is becoming trickier and trickier for them.

            “Umm, it’s like this, see? We’ve changed our editorial directives, uh, just last week, see? So even though this is the Greatest Book Ever Written, we’re only publishing books written by Bolivian plumbers. And books about bakery robberies that take place in Istanbul. So see, since (a) you’re not a Bolivian plumber and (b) your book does not involve a bakery theft in Istanbul—or anything in Istanbul for that matter, I’m sure you’ll understand why we won’t be able to publish it right now. I hope you understand. We’re all really, really sorry though, and pray that you will be able to find it in your heart to ever forgive us. Oh, please, please forgive us!”

            Yeah, well.

            I can’t tell you how much I’d love to get a rejection that simply and honestly said “Boy, oh boy is this one a steaming stinkeroo! I mean it—this thing you call a ‘book’ really, really sucks. It’s gotta be the biggest piece of shit I’ve seen all year—and believe me, I’ve seen the worst. Thanks for wasting my time, asshole.”

            See, now that I could respect. Moreover, I’d probably agree with them.

            It’s not just publishing, either—it’s everywhere. Dealing with co-workers, calling the bank with a problem, encountering people on the street or the subway. Last time I was fired it was done so obliquely and so vaguely that it took me a few minutes to realize what had just happened. Everyone is so terrified of passing along bad news—it might lead to a confrontation after all, or hurt someone’s feelings—that now the typical response is to say nothing at all. To simply not respond, not return phone calls or messages. Better to hide, to cower, to keep your opinions to yourself so you don’t have to worry about how someone might respond. “If I ignore the question, it will go away and everything will be fine.” Meanwhile you’re there at the other end waiting for that call or note so you can get on with things. Believe you me that makes things far, far worse. And people wonder why strangers are gunned down randomly on street corners or shoved in front of trains? It’s because we’re all being asked (albeit in a nice, sensitive way) to swallow our opinions if they might make someone feel bad, to refrain from pointing out when someone does something stupid, or wrong, or incompetent, and to smile and encourage the talentless.

            You ask me, we’d all be a lot better off, the culture would be much more rational, if we had the collective balls to speak truthfully and honestly, if we were once again allowed to not only say “no,” but “fuck no, dumbass.”


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