Novelist Marlon James has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker prize for his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), a story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. What caught my eye in the media coverage, however, was not his current success, but rather repeated mentions that his first novel was rejected almost 80 times before a publisher finally picked it up. Matthew Weaver and Mark Brown report for The Guardian:
He recalled that his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 78 times by publishers, before it was eventually published in 2005. “I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much,” he said.
Despite the success of his latest novel, which the Man booker judges described as “an extraordinary book” after a unanimous decision, James said he thought the publishing industry had not changed that much since his first book was repeatedly turned down.
“There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he told Today. Asked if he had considered giving up writing, the 44-year-old writer said: “I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends computers and erased it.” He said he retrieved the text by searching in the email outbox of an old iMac computer.
Marlon James’s story is one of both perseverance and a bit of good fortune, the latter being how he was able to rescue his discarded book manuscript after he had given up after all of those rejections. Many of us would have thrown in the towel a lot earlier.
Is it possible to think about this decision making process more systematically? In The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin identifies three common stay vs. go scenarios regarding projects, jobs, and affiliations:
- The Dip “is the long slog between starting and mastery” of something achievable and worthwhile. After an optimistic start, you encounter resistances, but they are surmountable, and the ends justify your perseverance.
- The Cul-de-Sac is “a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” You invest tons of time, energy, intellect, and emotion into trying to change a status quo that is determined not to budge.
- The Cliff is a thankfully rare, but addictive situation that can end badly, the work equivalent of taking drugs. Examples are folks who get caught up in Ponzi schemes and subprime housing deals.
Dips, says Godin, are worth fighting through. Cul-de-Sacs and Cliffs, however, call for escape.
But here’s a big challenge: It’s a lot easier to identify a Dip or a Cul-de-Sac after the fact. (Most Cliffs send out earlier warning signs.) But how do you tell the difference when you’re in the thick of things? There’s no easy answer to that!
If you’re encountering resistances toward something that really means a lot to you — a matter that goes to your core — maybe you simply keep trying. If your efforts are part of a broader cause, then you also may have to accept that the change you want to see will not occur in your lifetime.
Perhaps you hedge your bets, putting your project on the shelf for now, but staying ready for a more opportune moment. Then you seize an opening that either arrives or you created.
Or maybe you say enough is enough. This decision, for example, confronts talented athletes, performers, and creative people over and again. There’s nothing wrong about stepping away when you know the time has come.
Which brings us back to Marlon James and his first novel. At some point, he gave up, having concluded that becoming a published novelist was not meant to be. From a distance, at least, we might’ve regarded him as being unrealistically obsessive after even 15 or 33 or 50 rejections, much less the 78th one that caused him to destroy his manuscript. In considering his story, we may hear echoes of references to fine lines between genius and madness.
But then a window of opportunity opened, and he found a way to retrieve his discarded novel. Talent once rejected and abandoned is now being recognized in big venues. Hmm…..this is vexing stuff. When do we keep at it, and when do we let it go? James’s tale yields no answers.