These days, you don't really think about Ernest Hemingway getting rejected. It's easier with F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially if you've read The Pat Hobby Stories, but Hemingway is such an icon that you almost suspect he sprang from the head of Zeus fully formed, perhaps with a copy of "The Sun Also Rises" clutched in his arms. So it was moving to find this passage in A.E. Hotchner's memoir Hemingway in Love, where Hemingway discusses his earliest days with his first wife:
"Hadley and I were lucky. The stars were perfectly aligned for us. Hadley believed in me and that was more than enough to overcome the pain of all those rejection slips. Those stories. It was hard as hell to write 'em, but harder to have them rejected. When you get a printed form attached to a story you wrote and worked on very hard and believed in, that printed rejection slip is hard to take on an empty stomach. 'Dear sir: We regret to tell you that your submission does not meet our editorial needs.' Well fuck it. I regret to tell you that your rejection slip does not meet MY editorial needs. Hadley would notice the mutilated rejection slips and tell me not to be discouraged."
It's been a long time since I've mutilated a rejection slip. The digital age has robbed me of the pleasure, no matter how hard I hit that delete key. It's hard to know how Hemingway would have functioned in the digital age and harder to still to imagine Hadley casually noticing his angrily deleted emails so she can give him some encouraging words of support.
In On Writing, Stephen King talks of how he used to keep all his rejection letters on a spike near his desk. He too would have a harder time these days - he'd have to print out the emails first. But this robs the act of its glory. When printed out, emails are rather dull. You don't get a letterhead on an email or the cream colored paper or the signature of that wicked editor who had the audacity to turn you away. There's individuality to those rejection slips which is why Hemingway and King no doubt found satisfaction in their mutilation: the letters become proxys for the editors themselves.
Of course, rejection letters used to have a little spit and polish to them - one is almost envious of Hemingway for receiving the following from the wonderfully named Mrs. Moberley Luger:
If I may be frank, Mr. Hemingway — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other.
King, on the other hand, was also told that "negative utopias" do not sell - the editor was referring to Carrie, so one has to wonder whether he read the same book millions of people did in 1974. No wonder King put the note through a spike.
Still, the letters had personality, which is more than I can say for the milquetoast notes I usually receive. I would almost prefer being rejected with the sort of conviction displayed by our Mrs. Moberley Luger. The more effort someone puts into rejecting you, the more of an impact you've probably made. Consider the romantic fool who arranges a meeting with his lady love. Off I go...er, I mean, off HE goes to the rendez-vous, only to be kept waiting without a single call, text, or Facebook post from the girl. Subsequent calls are ignored. The message has been received but it was sent along the path of least possible effort. But if his girl sends a skywriter to paint the words "YOU'RE DUMPED" across the heavens, at least our fool can take pleasure in knowing that he really made an impression. As Elie Wiesel said, the opposite of love is indifference.
It's possible that editors are hiding behind dull rejection slips solely so they aren't ever mocked a hundred years hence. People today mock Mrs. Moberley Luger, much as they mock all those people who turned down Gone With the Wind. Keeping your signature off the rejection slip is a good way to ensure you aren't in the 2116 edition of "Famous Rejection Slips." On the other hand, they may be certain this will never be an issue. Mrs. Moberley Luger was probably as certain about our Mr. Hemingway as many editors are about me.
Shows what they know. Unlike Hemingway, I don't even have to pay for a stamp.