Recently, an editor who regularly rejects my articles called me a humorist. I let it pass. Editors have called me worse things.
When I was young and busy, I wrote humour for fun, and I sold the odd piece. Now that I’m old and idle, I write humour seriously, and I still sell the odd piece. So I’m keeping up. To move ahead, I’ll have to figure out how to create more odd pieces.
I’ve kept working at it because early on I was told, repeatedly, that writers who can make readers laugh will always be in demand. Lately, though, I’ve begun to question that gratuitous wisdom. I can’t help noticing that whereas I haven’t received a single rejection slip from my readers, I’ve lost count of the number I’ve received from my editors. Maybe writers who can make editors laugh are the ones always in demand.
Some editors don’t reject your material. They ignore it. This can be devastating if your artistic feelings are easily hurt. When your stuff is rejected, you can say to your friends, proudly, “Look here, I’ve been turned down by some of the best publications in the world,” and you can show them the rejection slips to prove it. When your stuff is ignored, you can’t show them anything, because editors who ignore you don’t provide documentation.
When I had saved up enough rejected material to make a book, I approached several publishers. If I can’t sell my articles individually, I thought, maybe I can market them as a collection. The publishers thought otherwise and none offered me a contract. All, however, added to my stock of rejection slips, for which I was duly grateful. These were much like the ones I already had, except that they usually ended by wishing me success in placing the manuscript with another publisher.
Isn’t that disgusting? It shows you how cut-throat book publishers can be. When they get hold of something they think won’t sell, they direct it to their competitors, hoping, no doubt, that one of them accepts it and goes bankrupt.
I discussed rejection slips in an article entitled “Writers versus editors,” which I sold to a magazine that is now, unfortunately, defunct. The magazine, which had a long and distinguished history, ceased publication shortly after my article appeared. When I said, in jest, that I hoped the article wasn’t to blame, the editor was most reassuring. He indicated that a subscriber survey failed to turn up anyone who had read it.
I noted in the article that the standard rejection slip says something like, “We have examined the enclosed material. However, it does not meet our current editorial requirements.” The editors don’t reject the material, I pointed out. They reject its untimely arrival. If it had arrived a month earlier, or later, they might have accepted it. The really successful authors, I told my non-existent readers, aren’t any better at writing than you or I. It’s their timing that’s better.
A few editors must have read the article, because they revised their rejection slips. They began saying something like, “Thank you for your recent submission. After careful consideration, we regret that it is not right for us.” It’s no longer my timing that’s off. It’s my morality. I’m accused of violating their code of ethics.
My favourite rejection slip came from a celebrated humour magazine that stopped publishing some years after I submitted an article to it. I am confident there is no connection between my submission and the magazine’s demise. Like many publications, not to mention their sedentary editors, this one developed circulation problems that proved fatal. Remarkably, the magazine, though not the deceased editors, later came back to life, only to expire a second time.
The rejection slip said, “Sorry. Not quite.” If I had a coat of arms, those words would be emblazoned on it in letters large enough for the legally blind to see. In all my major endeavours, from hockey to historical scholarship, from magic to music, and beyond, the verdict has been “Sorry. Not quite.” If my heirs spring for a tombstone, I imagine that will be my epitaph; and when Satan comes scrounging for my soul, I hope my guardian angel shouts it loud and clear, forcing him to seek elsewhere for more worthy denizens of the deep
Despite the rejections, I’ve made enough editors laugh to publish two humour collections. What’s more, I now have the honour of appearing every couple of months in The Interim.
Joe Campbell’s most recent book The Great Canadian Comedy: From Laughter To Tears is available at freedompress.ca.