Canada |

Four Letters from an Ongoing Series

by Jacob Wren

edited by Kathryn Mockler

I get home and I check the mail. I dread checking it. If there is no mail I feel empty. If there is mail it can only be one of three types: 1) bills I can often not afford to pay, 2) junk mail urging me to purchase something that has almost no connection to my basic desires, 3) letters from far away publishers informing me that they are not going to publish my recently completely manuscript. Today there is no mail and I feel empty. I unlock my apartment and go inside.

My apartment is full of dust. I clean it and then, a few weeks later, it is completely full of dust again. Every few weeks like clockwork. I clean and, a few weeks later, it is as if the entire apartment has moved backwards in time. When I clean I suspect I don’t do a particularly thorough job. But I live alone, am almost never home, so how much cleaning does it actually need? Apparently more than I am currently doing, or at least with greater frequency, with more commitment. Then, thinking along these lines, I feel too much like a man, since cleaning is an unpleasantly gendered activity, one that men, due to considerable social prejudice both in how we are raised and how we are seen or see ourselves, often do with less attention to detail. I hate it when I feel like a man. It is probably worse when I don’t, since those are times I am coasting through territory where my privilege is even more invisible to me than usual.

I am living at a moment in history when people don’t use regular mail nearly as often as they used to. When they are far more likely to communicate with each other electronically. It seems likely, in the future but still within my lifetime, that there will be no more mail, or that mail will become something almost exotic, used only on special occasions or by individuals with some slightly nostalgic fetish for handwritten stationary. Will I be one of these stationary-fetish people or will I abandon the mail in the same way I long ago abandoned television and, for the most part, even films? It has been years since I’ve written anyone a paper letter, but still I check my mailbox every single day with an almost comical sense of dread. The bills pile up on the kitchen table, and I pay the ones on the bottom of the pile whenever possible. It is also more than possible for me to pay these bills electronically but I do not, never entirely understanding why I continue to make this particular decision.

I get home and I check the mail. There are no bills, no advertisements. There is, however, a single letter addressed, via computer printed label, to my full name. I take it inside, make herbal tea, sit down on a chair at the kitchen table before opening it. It is typed. One page long. I read it slowly and with great trepidation.

Thank you for your generous submission. We have read it, considered it at length, but regret to inform you that we will not be able to publish your manuscript at this time.

We hope the following comments will be constructive, as we have great admiration for your writing, and believe it will eventually find a publishing apparatus that will be able to do it far more justice than we are currently able to.

As we are sure you already well know, these are difficult times for publishing. Your writing is somewhat unusual, yet not so unusual that this sense of difference might be said to be its defining feature. In fact, what precisely might be said to be the defining feature of your writing is somewhat unclear to us. It is political but not overly so. Exploratory but not definitively experimental. Personal yet you in fact reveal fairly little of yourself. Male yet soft.

We could continue, but by this point you might have already caught an inkling of where we are headed. You are in between, fall between the cracks, are neither here nor there. This in-between quality is of course the most difficult literary virtue to market. And yet: one might also claim it is your work’s main strength and central enigma, the mystery that makes it tick and keeps us reading. Because, we have to admit, once we started your manuscript we were compelled to keep reading until the very end.

Clearly a publisher that is braver than us, with more insight into your work’s core strengths, and more savvy in regards to how one might eventually market them, is out there somewhere. We look forward to purchasing a first edition when you and this hypothetical publisher finally meet.

Until then. Wishing you luck.

I put down the letter next to the pile of bills that sits directly beside me. As far as such letters go, this one feels reasonably positive. Useless but positive. If they don’t know how to market me than I most certainly don’t know how to market myself. Or maybe I do but simply don’t want to. Or don’t want to quite desperately enough. Or perhaps my desperation is, by this point, sufficient yet blocked by a particularly acute sense of shame. We could also call this shame self-sabotage.

I take a cloth from the shelf, run it under the tap, and half-heartedly drag it over a selection of dusty surfaces. When the first cloth feels too dust-covered to continue, I repeat the activity with a second cloth and then a third. I do so with little order or reason, leaving some surfaces behind, in between clean and dusty, falling through the cracks much—as was just explained to me—like my prose. Then I lie down, read for three hours, a book I find utterly brilliant though later I can’t quite remember which one, turn off the bedside light, and lie in the darkness turning the contents of the rejection letter over and over again in my mind. I do this for many hours before eventually falling asleep, not remembering even a single moment of a single dream.

I get home and I check the mail. There is no mail. I unlock the door and head inside. It is well after midnight and I am drunk. I stumble slightly in the kitchen attempting to make tea, and drink it lying in bed, wondering why I drank so much alcohol tonight and if I’m drinking more, or more frequently, than I used to. Will literature last forever or is it practically, already a thing of the past? And how do we even define literature, since without some definition it is barely possible to judge the field’s relative health or disrepair. Are my overly refined tastes—predilections and preferences I’ve spent most of a lifetime overly refining—the most useful criteria or do they pertain only to my personal idiosyncrasies? Would it be better to have something more generalized, a canon most might agree upon, or would this very canon simply be a dampening force, pushing down the lid, creating conventions through consensus both more consensual and more conventional?

One of my overriding goals in life has always been not to become bitter. I’m genuinely not sure if I’m succeeding. Every year I feel a little bit more bitter. And yet there’s this voice in my head, repeating almost like a mantra: don’t become bitter. Over and over again, off and on throughout the years.

I arrive home and I check the mail. There is one bill, an advertisement for pizza delivery and a letter addressed to me. The address is handwritten, placed neatly in the center of the envelope. I go inside, place the bill atop the pile of others so much like it, place the ad gently within the recycling bin, fold the letter in half, unopened, since for the moment I have no reason to believe it is not yet another rejection letter, and place it in the breast pocket of my jacket, taking off the jacket and resting it over the back of a kitchen chair. I then make tea. I drink one pot of tea, staring at my jacket as if it were my enemy, facing me down from the back of the chair on the other side of the table. I begin a second pot of tea, a different flavor, knowing I am only procrastinating but telling myself there is no real harm in it. The rejection letter doesn’t care if I read it now or in a few hours. I sit drinking tea, don’t read or listen to music, the two activities I find myself most often engaged in while at home. I finish the second pot of tea, tell myself this is getting ridiculous, I’ve waited long enough, reach across the table and into my jacket pocket, tearing the envelope impolitely as I pull it open with my index finger.

Thank you so much for your generous submission. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to publish it at this time. Feel free to submit any future work you manage to complete.

That is it. Two pots of tea worth of dread for only three empty sentences. A form letter. A bit of nothing centered on a blank white page. I place the letter on the table next to the bills, walk to the bathroom and pee. As the urine streams into the toilet I have a depressing thought. That my writing is like this urine, running through me and into the sewer. It comes from my body but is going nowhere, with a single flush no one will ever see it again. Depressing thoughts make me feel stupid, and this negative thought makes me feel stupid with a particular velocity. My book is of course nothing like a stream of urine. What a fucking stupid thought.

I get home and I check the mail. There are two letters addressed to me, an advertisement for someone to shovel my walkway, an advertisement for cheap cable (250 channels) and a telephone bill. I open the door and walk inside, place the bill atop the pile, the ads in the recycling bin. I am still holding the two rejection letters as I start to make tea. The tea is ready and I’m still holding the two rejection letters, standing stock still in the middle of the kitchen. I’m not sure for how long I stay like that, but by the time I read the first letter the entire pot has gone cold and I need to redo it.

Thank you so much for sending us your fine manuscript. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to publish it at this time.

I am only an intern. Therefore, I am not certain to what degree my thoughts and reflections on your work will be of use. However this is the job they’re (not really) paying me for and I will therefore do my best to offer your work my honest and focused consideration.

From my perspective, your book is an attempt to bring together two conflicting approaches: a political reflection on the many ways our mainstream Western culture paves over injustices in other parts of the world, injustices it has no small part in creating, and a personal reflection on your own out-of-place, unreflected life (or at the very least the life of a protagonist the reader will have no qualms assuming is little more than a stand in for you). These two streams reflect upon one another yet don’t quite connect. This lack of connection might be seen as one of many in your work: between you and the people in your life, between the West and conditions in other parts of the world, between your actual daily life and your desire for emancipatory politics and, possibly with the most (unintentionally?) tragic effects, between the authorial voice and the reader.

The protagonist of your book is marginal. His political views are also, arguably, somewhat marginal. But why should I, as a reader, as someone with a considerably more active and energizing life, particularly care? Resources are violently extracted from poor countries and this very extraction makes my more comfortable lifestyle possible. Reading your manuscript brought this reality, about which I was already hazily aware, towards the forefront of my consciousness. But it didn’t make me enjoy my life any less or feel that anything must immediately change.

I am a young man working for free for a smallish, rather prestigious literary press because I can (more or less) afford to. The money (for now) comes from my father, from oil, and the money in my pocket should have most likely remained in the pockets of young people in Iraq or Venezuela. Reading your book makes me think this, but it doesn’t particularly make me care. If I’m the enemy then really let me have it. If moral outrage about the state of the world is consuming your life, paralyzing you, taking over your world, then set fire to the reader in an act of revenge. Instead you leave the reader, or this reader at least, indifferent, watching your ineffective life unravel ineffectually. If our wealth is criminal then let’s live with the criminal joy of pirates or fight to the death to bring a sliver more of justice into being. Not the passive slither forward you are attempting to pass off as literature.

I realize all of this is easier said than done. And I am only an intern here, what do I know. Feel free to send us any future work. By that time someone else will be doing my (thankless) job, and I will hopefully be a little further up the ranks.

I put down the first letter and stare at the still unopened envelope of the second. Right now, somewhere in the world, probably somewhere far away but perhaps also somewhere close, someone is being bombed and someone else is being tortured. But not me. I have finished the pot of tea and begin to make a second (actually a third if we include the one I let grow cold). I have a moment of wanting to kill that intern and then another moment of feeling thankful he was so honest and provocative. There is so little honesty in the world.

I haven’t cleaned my apartment in weeks, or maybe months. And silently, as if in a trance, as if I barely even know what I’m doing, I fold the second letter in half, place it in my jacket pocket and begin. I fill a bucket with almost-boiling soapy water and start wiping down every surface I can find. I wash the walls and mop the floors. Scour the bathtub and the inside of the toilet. I carefully take the dust from the top of every single book in my library, wash the windows and clean out the fridge. By the time I’m finished it is almost 3 a.m. I wonder if I should read the second letter now or wait until morning. Would it actually be possible for me to fall asleep not knowing what it says? Am I exhausted enough? I shower, standing under the plentiful hot water like a corpse, wondering how many of these letters I will continue to collect.

Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, I realize there is no way I’m getting any sleep tonight. I walk to the kitchen to get the second letter, quickly tearing it open.

We kindly regret to inform you we will not be accepting your manuscript for publication at this time. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

Writers always seem to think their lives are so interesting. Yours, like most writers, is not. In your work you almost seem to know this, and therefore fill the void with reflections on politics and the world. These reflections are somewhat more intriguing. But we are not a political press and, in general, radical politics is a hard sell. We are in the business of selling books, quality literary books, and have little interest in either promoting your self-pity or in attempting to change the world.

I am an educated man, and know as much about politics as many educated men. However, I am no expert and will not comment further on the political scope of your writings, except to say you might well be better off writing pamphlets and handing them out on street corners. What I am, unfortunately, is an expert on the self-pity of unpublished literary writers. I have come to this expertise, of course, through my job reading endless slush piles of words that, at times, seem to me to be little more than expressions of this self-same, middle-class guilt and self-pity.

I will now say to you what I have so often wanted to say to so many of these writers. More commonly I restrain myself in the name of professionalism, but while reading your manuscript something in me snapped. I hope, once the initial sting has receded, you will be able to take this advice. God knows you need it more than most.

So here is goes: get out there and fucking do something with your life, it’s not too late. Have love affairs, protest the government and go to jail for it, get into fights, run for office, set fire to a police car or to an oil well, go to other countries and feed the poor, kill someone who deserves to die, save someone’s life, take too many drugs, start a business or a band or a drug smuggling ring. For god sakes, do something, anything, so you’ll have something to write about other than your own pathetic life and your own pathetic reflections on how obviously unfair the world is.

Or, if all that seems too much, at least make something up. Write science fiction, invent other worlds or other species. If you don’t have any adventures of your own then holy fuck just make some up. Don’t just stare at the mirror bemoaning your tepid fate, use your imagination to send yourself towards some better, or at least more interesting, world.

I will not apologize for my little rant because I honestly think you need it, because I want you to take it square in the face. You have potential , but you’re wasting it on mundane, writerly self-pity. Wasted potential is heartbreaking. Take this letter to heart and actually change your life.

It was strange to get those two, both rather critical letters at the same time. I lie in bed filled with doubts of every kind. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, I strangely don’t doubt my work all that much. I have to write the books I have to write. If every single publisher in the world thinks they’re shit than so be it. Of course it feels bad now but I’m sure I’ve seen worse and perhaps there is even worse to come. Right now, somewhere in the world, someone is being tortured and someone else is being bombed. How much do a few pages of critical words directed at me really hurt when stacked up against even a sliver of the horrors possible in the world? I’m going to keep writing books, I try to tell myself, not sure if I’m still completely awake or if I’m already drifting off to sleep. And if not, maybe it’s still not too late to find some other thing to do with my life.

The next morning, the mood from the previous night continues but in a slightly different key. Since I’m arrogant, I tell myself, or at least confident—I know that my manuscript is good and that, someday, instead of this trickle of rejection letters, my work will instead be met with any number of appreciative offers, perhaps not this current book but some future, as yet unwritten one. In the long run I will be read. Whether this happens while I’m still alive, or long after, remains difficult to say. It might happen tomorrow or perhaps in a hundred years. However, if this flood of success were to miraculously occur tomorrow, if I were then easily able to pay my few bills and no longer had to read these endless letters of rejection, I also fear it would make little difference to my mood or to my life. My life might improve, might even improve considerably, but I suspect I would feel more or less the same. I get home and I check the mail. Today the mailbox is empty, there is nothing. I unlock my apartment and go inside.