The Hard Sell(s)

Okay, today we have a post aimed squarely at the writerly types in the audience, and as I can’t imagine that many ‘real people’ would be the slightest bit interested in my inane mutterings I’m guessing that’s most of you.

(Pauses a moment to let them decide if that ‘real people’ is an insult or not, and allow any ‘civilians’ to leave by the EXIT at the rear.)

Earlier today I was transferring some old ‘works in progress’ from disk to the hard drive, and it occurred to me that one of them, if I ever do finish it to my satisfaction, will be a veritable bugger to place, and this got me to thinking about a story from the back catalogue that I had similar difficulties with.

It was called “Dissonance”, and it was the only thing of mine to have been written as the result of trying to attain a higher state of consciousness.

At the time I wrote it, I’d been reading quite a bit on the work and career of Russian mystic Gurdijeff (not sure of the spelling, and I’m not going to check). While the other mystics were all advocating the use of drugs and meditation, G believed that you could reach a higher state of consciousness through hard work and repetition, and set his disciples to digging ditches and chanting mantras as they did so. Needless to say, he was very popular in Soviet Russia of the 1920s, which apparently had an insatiable appetite for freshly dug ditches.

Anyway, I was too savvy to fall for the hard work thing, but decided I could hack repetition, and so spent nearly an entire afternoon walking up and down a garden path in the hot sun, taking care not to tread on the cracks between paving stones. At the end of that time I looked up at the sky and it seemed to burst into flames, the horizon blackening and peeling back rather like the map at the beginning of Bonanza to give me a vision of some other level of reality, one that remained annoyingly nebulous.

Then I went indoors and started to write “Dissonance”.

The story’s prologue:-

The air’s jam packed tonight. I’ve got my aerial out full stretch and picking up signals from all around.

Let’s put it down just as it comes. Foaming insanity, couched in the very latest style.

Like some primeval spider deity I sit, suspended in my web of energy, sucking up power, draining the lifeblood of whole galaxies and spiral nebulae. Their inhabitants, bivalve creatures with gills and armoured tails, cry out to me for succour, but in vain.

Listen. This is what it’s like, living inside this skull, looking out from behind these eyes.

I trust you can see from that small sample, that I had succeeded in my efforts to attain an altered state of consciousness, though not necessarily a higher one.

For years I would describe “Dissonance” thus – ‘It begins with a man waking up and going to the window and throwing back the curtains, and there’s a giant vagina floating in the sky, and after that it all gets silly.’

The story upset one of my best friends when he read it. Afterwards he asked me to explain the story and got seriously annoyed when I said that I couldn’t, that I didn’t really understand it myself. It was incomprehensible to him that I could write something, but not know what it was about, and so he assumed I was just being an arsehole, that I knew but wouldn’t explain and was looking down on him because he ‘didn’t get it’.

There’s an anecdote I once read concerning Picasso. Somebody said they liked his painting but didn’t understand it, and Picasso asked them if they liked birdsong, and if so did they feel it was necessary for it to make some kind of sense.

But of course writing and art are not commensurate, as Sartre argued in What Is Literature? if I remember correctly.

Over a period of many years “Dissonance” was rejected by every market that I sent it to, along the way garnering some of my very favourite rejection letters. One editor said ‘The story is certainly very bizarre, and I really must question your sanity, but maybe it’s a little too bizarre, as you lost me quite a few times during the tale’. Another remarked that although he had a reputation for publishing the avant garde this was too far out there for him. A third published a short section titled “The Rorschach Test” as a standalone piece.

When I was writing magazine reviews for Zine/Zene/The Fix I used “Dissonance” as a ‘scapegoat’ story, submitting it to editors I might have offended with negative reviews and giving them a chance to vent. That tactic got me my absolute favourite comment in a rejection letter – ‘I was concerned when I read your review. Having now read what you consider to represent good writing, I am no longer concerned.’ Textbook snark.

And then Rachel Kendall* put an end to all my fun, by accepting and publishing the story in her excellent Sein und Werden and somebody answering to the name of Alison Littlewood (though in the current climate I’m wondering if it could have been one of my sock puppets I’ve since forgotten about) reviewed it for the Whispers of Wickedness website and pronounced it good.

And that was it.

The world didn’t end. The literary establishment didn’t proclaim me the next William S. Burroughs. I didn’t get flooded with offers from Hollywood A-listers determined to prove that the story wasn’t unfilmable.

All pretty anti-climactic, and if there’s a moral to the story then it is to never give up on your ugly ducklings. They may not turn into beautiful swans, but they might still prove airworthy in spite of everything.

Which brings us to the present day and the story I now anticipate much difficulty placing should I ever finish it.

It’s called “The Battle of Gettysburg 1863, Recreated As A Paintball Fight Between The Massed Armies of Modern and Traditional Art”.

It was inspired by my love of modern art and a childhood infatuation with those excessively gory American Civil War bubble gum cards that, as far as I know, are remembered only by men of my age demographic, and was written in the tradition of work like Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”, itself inspired by Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race”. And there’s also something of Aragon’s wonderful essay “Imagination’s Discourse On Itself” from Paris Peasant, but only the merest soupcon.

It takes as its leit-motif, Picasso’s declaration: ‘No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.’

From the first movement:-

About three miles from the town the Traditional advance guard ran headlong into a column of Dadaist Light Cavalry led by Colonel Marcel Duchamp mounted on a penny farthing bicycle, and combat commenced in the battle that was to prove a turning point in the Great War to Free the Imagination. Both sides sent for reinforcements, while the heavily outnumbered Dadaists fought desperately to hold their ground.

            Every Traditional and Modern unit in the area now converged on Gettysburg. The Traditionals were closest and slowly pushed the Moderns back through the town until General Salvador Dali, through application of his famed paranoia-critical method, managed to persuade his men that they actually outnumbered the enemy. Morale braced by this trompe l’oeil subterfuge the retreating troops rallied into defensive positions on two prominences overlooking the town, known locally as Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill.

            General J M W Turner, the Commander in Chief of the Traditional forces, arrived in the middle of the afternoon and ordered Francisco Goya to renew his attack on the high ground before nightfall, but Goya and his division commanders got into a heated argument about the quality of the light and the benefits of perspective, with the result that no attack was made.

I don’t know that I shall finish it, as it feels more like game-playing than serious work (but of course, I like playing games, and on occasion they need to be taken very seriously indeed), and I certainly don’t know what I’ll do with it if I do finish. On that score, any and all suggestions are welcome.

So, congratulations to those of you who made it this far, and it’s time to pay the piper and share your own war stories, of hard sell work and amusing rejections, difficulties encountered and obstacles overcome.


*As a footnote to this post, it’s been my experience that women editors are a lot more receptive to ‘difficult’ work than their male counterparts. By ‘difficult’ I primarily mean sexually explicit material, of which “Dissonance” contained rather a lot.

By way of example, my story “Taking Care of Patrick”, which was about prostitution, gave several male editors cause for concern that it might be interpreted in a misogynistic way, but Michelle Oliver at Axiom was happy to publish it and, if I recall correctly, told me the sex scenes were funny (on reflection, I’m not sure how I should feel about that last bit).


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7 Responses to The Hard Sell(s)

  1. Great blog, Pete.

    I wrote a story called “The Rape” which proved to be almost (but not quite) impossible to place.

    For one thing, as a speed bump for speed readers, the story starts with what appears to be a description of a woman being raped, and gradually, despite herself, giving in to the sheer physical enjoyment of the rape, starting to cooperate with her rapist. In addition to that, the entire story is told in the first person, but the first person of different characters, without any clear indication of when the first person consciousness switches from one character to another. And two of the main characters have the same name.

    I’ve always had a great deal of fondness for “The Rape”, but I had the hardest time trying to sell it. Some editors thought it really was about a woman enjoying being raped (which is discouraging), and were outraged that I sent it to them. Another frequent reason for rejection was because they found the story to be far too confusing to follow, with all the point of view switches. A few praised the story, but said there was no way in hell they’d ever print it. (And I agree with you that women seem to be more open to questionable stories than men.)

    As in your case, Pete, it was Rachel who came to the rescue. “The Rape” was finally published in Sein und Werden, Volume 1, Issue 2, and got some great reviews (including one from you.)

    What Rachel does is very brave, in my opinion, taking chances again and again on difficult or problematic stories, but unfortunately, she’s one of the few publishers willing to take that kind of risk (at least in my experience.)

    There are some stories of mine that even as I’m writing them, I know they’re going to be almost impossible to place. Either because of length (over 10,000 words), story elements (explicit sex, or race relations—still a taboo, to some extent), or general approach (too surreal, too confusing).

    I have a story called “Bang, Bang, Thud” I’ve been trying to sell for about a decade. It’s my most rejected story (some sex, a main character who seems to be African-American, and too surreal.) But I still pack it a lunch each time and send it back out. Hopeful that one time it won’t come back.

    We’ll see.

  2. I haven’t submitted any fiction anywhere since university (though I’m gearing up to it). But back then I used to submit stories for the student paper (for which I was also reviewing music) and the first few got published and I thought, wow, this is going well. Then on the way out of a staff meeting I heard someone say, “Who is this fucking Stephen Theaker who keeps sending in stories?”

    • petertennant says:

      That comment may not have been derogatory, though it probably was. But then should you pay attention to the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know who you are even though you’re reviewing music for the magazine?

  3. Ray Cluley says:

    Hard sell wise, I’ve a story that’s had many a rejection but always with positive comments. The pace is probably too slow but it’s meant to be rather sedate. Maybe one day…

    Misogyny wise, my story ‘The Traveller’s Stay’ ticked that box with one publisher enough that they didn’t want to see the rest of the collection (though they liked the other two samples). I still can’t see it – perhaps that should be a worry?!

    Linked to that, and regarding a story I know will be controversail when I send it out there, there is something I’m working on which I think will be much better received under a female pseudonym. It’s tempting, but I really shouldn’t need to. We’ll see how brave I am once it’s finished…

    • petertennant says:

      Years ago a friend read a story of mine that involved two women being tortured, “Death of a Valkyrie”, and she commented that she was surprised it was ‘so down on women’ as I didn’t seem that way at all. The thing was the characters in the story were women simply because it was loosely inspired by a real life situation in which I’d been supported by two women, while all the men involved just washed their hands. The women in the story acted honorably and suffered horribly for doing so, while the men were characterised as either sadists or apologists for torture, so to my mind if there was any gender bias in the story it was morally against men rather than being ‘down on’ women.
      My friend accepted that, though when the story got published I wonder how this aspect played out with people who didn’t actually know me or the back story.

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