Vera Black walks the line as she empties her email, but in a death march kind of way. She finds herself rummaging through routine rejection letters. Heads turn less than eyes roll whenever she pitches. The game isn’t new to her, just increasingly impossible to play.
Like pleasantries, the pitches are pointless; but there’s no way to skip the smiles or the small talk.
Just like the odd reconsideration under the condition of revisions, another level marked as a dry, directionless process. Which is why every once in a blue moon, Vera nods perceptively, not happily.
Revision requests are hard to come by and even harder to work with, acknowledgements from addled editors or mods who are as indecisive as they are indulgent. They seem like savory second chances, but are underwritten ultimatums. There is no such thing as a draft or feedback, just an idea tossed back into her court as she is tasked to temper her prose for a final reading.
Which yields no response.
Vera thinks her writing—at least, selections of her writing—are perfect fits. She is a loyal subscriber to many of the outlets she peruses and pitches, so she is no stranger to the prose. She is confident in the brands, fans, and figures. Editors never reciprocate, because the outlets who claim to revere their readers can’t be bothered to oblige a writer. At least, this writer. Vera wants to make her mark among the medley of marginalized voices these publications profess to serve.
Every submission has been rejected.
She wonders if she’s running out of chances. Her first novel was published summers ago, back when she had the heart to hope. Now, she has less heart and more head. The latter makes it all bearable. The head can rationalize. The rationale retains her sense of respect. The respect flickers, albeit faintly, when she closes a small sale. Art is an arms race, she reasons. A profit can be procured as a ghostwriter, grunting through a grind as she grovels for coins.
Vera, clad in her snug sweats, doesn’t look like a writer. Her fingers are fast and frantic, wheedling into lengthy word counts. In the fall of 2009, she started what would become a decade long degree program at Dalhousie University. She was set to study psychology, but strayed until she settled into sociology. It was an ideal fit. Psychology was esteemed, but more empirical and clinical. Sociology was a driven discipline she could mine and muse into given her antipathic analyses.
But, neither field ensured payoffs. As time stretched on, so did an endless road marked by indefinite insights and ambiguous employment prospects. Despite all the time, money, and effort she’s paid into her program, Vera has yet to see a solid return on her investments in her second year of grad school—which is one of the reasons she writes for a buck today.
In an institution that proclaims to set the bar higher with each literary bestseller, Vera’s bar is noticeably absent; annihilated by the scores of sanctimonious, uninspired platitudes that continue to sell.
“It’s the same story,” she says. “It’s told again and again—and again. After that, it’s told twice more.”
She thinks the standards are defined by marketability, not meaning. It isn’t a coincidence that gatekeepers—editors, mods, the talking heads of traditional publishers—serve to ensure sales as much as they enforce institutional status quo. Their interests for profit coincide with conformity. Writers like Vera seldom make a sale.
Still, Vera hasn’t made a sale, not on her own merit anyway. She continues to grasp at the gears of ghostwriting’s gravy train, the pittance that proves lucrative.
Ghostwriting is a thriving industry. For writers like Vera, the writers who can’t be their own writers because they fail to make the cuts, it is opportune. It is also an open secret; open, but often overlooked. Ghostwriters are employed by most celebrities and bestselling authors. Some are credited as co-authors or briefed over in bylines by the bestsellers who boast social capital over funds.
Vera says she’s seen her work—slightly reworked, minimally reworded—in books from names that have become relatively recognizable, but she is contractually bound to confidentiality in accordance to the terms of her (ghostwriting) sales.
“It’s weird,” she chuckles, then snickers. “I remember one time, some fangirl left a bad review on one of my books. I found she’d quoted an author—that I’d apparently ghostwritten for—on her Goodreads. She gave that author [a review of] five stars.”
She says her contracts require she produce original content, sign over publishing rights, and commit to confidentiality. The last clause is absolutely non-negotiable.
“For good reason,” Vera scoffs, straying a glance to the shelves behind her.
Perhaps to add insult to injury as much as irony, we’ve met at a bookstore. The bestsellers are shined and centered not too far from the main entrance, while others are tastefully emphasized in the aisles.
Like the ones behind Vera.
I ask, “Doesn’t it bother you?”
She stares as if I’ve asked the stupidest question. “Even if it does, do you think it matters?”
Maybe Vera isn’t worried about the vague, if non-existent ethics of this, because of her proximity to injustice—and dysfunction. She is a Black, Métis woman who is reluctantly racialized as well as ostracized by one drop rule.
As a child, she was told she was “too light to be Black” by purported peers. The memory that defines her domestic life is when her mother, agonized at her resemblance to her father, shoved a screw into her index finger. In her early 20s, she stole into her medicine cabinet and swallowed eighteen potassium pills because she tired of the anguish she could never seem to amend.
Now, her hands are shaky and scarred just like her wrists. Vera is drained, disheveled, but drudges despite disbelief. She wiggles her index finger at me, visibly mottled. I don’t know if the gesture is to authenticate her earlier account or simply to convey her self-deprecation.
“I’ve always written,” she says. “But, I think around the time I saw Becoming Jane and heard about all these bestselling indies (independent authors) was when I started publishing—you know, self-publishing.”
Vera says the last part with a slight scowl. No one but her knows the distinction, or lack thereof, of self-publishing so well. It’s one few are inclined to think of and even fewer are inclined to discuss.
“A lot like ghostwriting,” she adds.
In the summer of 2015, she published her first novel after a string of rejected submissions. Vera has kept every rejection letter, many of which praise her prose and encourage her to submit other manuscripts. It wasn’t her writing that they rejected. It was the story. It followed a biracial male masochist who narrated a personal, sexual awakening under a Mistress.
Each publisher complimented her narrative, her voice, and made miscellaneous musings into her literary assets. Each publisher also admitted they liked the story. But ultimately, each publisher decided against it.
Vera says it’s the Doms, the Masters, the men in charge who’ve sold.
She taps the table, “It’s all peachy as long as the men are doing the spanking. Silly me for doing anything different.”
One publisher—an outlet I discovered prided itself upon being familiar with BDSM—rejected somewhat regretfully, “We don’t think our readers would be interested in female Dommes.” For Vera, the rejection wasn’t so much regretful as it was embarrassing. She notes that Dommes in themselves are ‘female,’ which made the statement redundant. She also notes that the character she wrote was explicated as a Mistress, not a Domme—a distinction the editors themselves couldn’t have been bothered to make or heed.
“This is the problem,” she stews, then stirs her coffee. “It’s these people—these people who don’t know their heads from their asses when it comes to these meanings. These people are the ones in charge of what gets in and what sells. These people—these ignoramuses—call the shots.”
Bitter and bemused, Vera swallowed the snubs somewhat silently and resolved to see her story published. So, she published it herself. Then, she forced herself to poach potential readers in various forums against the ache of her social anxiety and paranoia. Overall, she managed to entreat an endorsement overseas whose niche was male submission. Beyond that, she received relatively positive reviews.
That is, aside from the one who quoted that author she ghostwrote for.
Yet, Vera doesn’t consider the novel—or any of her works—accomplishments. Her sales rank was and has stayed stagnant. Despite scraping into her savings to prize giveaways, the novel garnered little interest. She had passed along several electronic editions to peers and writers who promised—but didn’t deliver—reviews.
“Something came up,” she shrugs. “Or, I just didn’t hear back.”
Nonetheless, Vera did write a decent novel. She employed the graphic arts skills she’d learned in high school to create a decent cover, in addition to formatting and editing the interior expertly. Which was why even though she hadn’t made any bestselling lists, I had to ask why copies weren’t on the shelves that surrounded us.
“I have to pay for my own copies,” she explains. “I don’t have the money to do that. I can only afford a few.”
She specifies that although the cost to print her books isn’t expensive, she loses out simply because of the shipping expenses. Authors have advised her that it’s worthwhile to order in large quantities, but that proves to be even more expensive. Vera relates how she regretted splurging last Christmas; because on top of printing and shipping, she surprisingly also had to pay customs.
She spent roughly $100 for just 10 books.
With another lucid glance to the shelves behind her, she recalls stumbling across a particular selfie that morning. She logs into her social media and slides her phone across the table so I can see an elated, white woman beaming in front of a bookshelf.
The image seems like a caricature, captioned by a proudly proclaimed “book junkie” eager to meet “book boyfriends.” She is backgrounded by book covers that not only capitalize upon, but cater to clichés. Covers with chiseled chests, shimmering and shirtless. Covers with couples clutched together, compelling readers to swoon into their synopses as they would swoon in an embrace. The woman pictured is posed before them, grinning from ear to ear.
Vera explains the woman runs a blog devoted to reviewing books she reads. The woman is one of many she tolerates online on her social media, restricted to a limited list that sees nothing personal. She shows me several statuses of the woman, all about various books with many begrudging a banal husband and children who detract from her reading.
“I’m not saying I’m perfect,” Vera mutters. “But, I’d kill to have the life she does—and here she is, online 99% of the time griping about how lame her world is compared to a Harlequin.”
She goes on to tell me that she unsubscribes from many on the restricted list not only because of this ingratitude, but also because she dislikes and finds herself sometimes triggered by the tropes these people revere. As an intersectional feminist whose sociology specializes in interpersonal relationships, she admits that a good deal of the romance genre she writes into dark downsides. She believes that much of mainstream romance glamorizes and romanticizes harmful intimate partner behaviors as well as rape culture—which is why she makes a point to have her characters clearly articulate their consent to be touched and otherwise involved.
“Women are constantly told they get what they put out in the world,” she grumbles. “While men are coddled out of being accountable. This is what they read, this what gets sold over and over again. ‘Boys will be boys,’ right?” Vera goes on to insist, “People should stop defining women by men. A woman isn’t defined by her relationship status or lack thereof.”
Zooming in on the selfie, she calls the books behind the woman ‘aisled indies,’ referring to the books as independently published bestsellers that earned mass distribution. I ask how they’re different from hers.
“Well, the authors don’t have to pay for their copies,” she explains. “Sometimes, they get a set number of copies—maybe 50, 100? They’re mass printed by distributors.”
I ask why she hasn’t gotten a distributor, but I already suspect the answer.
Vera confirms my suspicions: “Distributors bank on bestselling authors. I guess it makes sense, right? They wouldn’t want to be printing heaps of books that collect dust. You know, like mine do.”
The next day, Vera walks me around her campus. She wears her usual sweats. She wants to emulate the efficiency of her wardrobe, to live comfortably and loosely with satisfaction guaranteed. It’s a motto that accentuates her dissimilarity from what I would liken to a writer. She isn’t wearing reading glasses or some cardigan, and she isn’t clicking into a MacBook with a side of Starbucks or some steamy flask.
On the other hand, Vera doesn’t strike me as a starving artist. She esteems efficiency and eloquence, nothing blunt or bohemian. But, she says her diet consists of mostly “cereal dinners.” She also frequents her campus food bank, which she says has soured her mood today. The volunteer in charge was apparently looking over her shoulder and made her wait until the person before her left.
“Usually, it’s not like that,” she frowns, jostling her canned goods. “There’s a limit as to how much you can take from a shelf, but I’d think people follow it as is. I don’t get why that guy was watching me like a hawk—and, they wonder why people don’t use it as much as they could?”
Vera can’t afford to be proud, be it as a food bank goer or writer. Desperation goads her to yet another ghostwriting assignment. The futility of her fiction writing no longer fazes her. What gets to her is the honest writing, her real-life struggles that she pours into various pages.
That are nonetheless rejected.
As she grew more keen and contrary to the tropes involved in the industrial aspect of fiction, she still strove to pen her prospects. Which was why she poured herself into experiential, expositional essays. The leaders and target audience weren’t inclined to her fiction, but she was familiar with the feminist communities. Those outlets were reverent and resonant, many of which pride themselves upon providing platforms for marginalized writers; and Vera had known a number of the individuals from online debacles where they had driven for justice and espoused equality. They swore that marginalized voices should be heard. They also swore to amplify them.
They passed over Vera’s every pitch. Some of them just ignored her.
Like her first novel, she retains each rejection letter. And, like her first novel, each rejection said her stories—not her writing—have fallen short. Then, there are the flat no’s. Neither rejection style gives any specifics as to what was rejected, just that her work is not an ideal fit.
“I get that they can’t reply to everybody,” she reasons. “But, it still feels impersonal coming from these places. These places publish profound, personal tear-jerkers or ostensible opinion pieces. They revolve around the politics of personhood and revolution…and they reply with, ‘Sorry, we’ll pass on this one.’”
Vera attests to acute awareness as a feminist and sociologist. The identities are symbiotic, not complementary. She notes that emotions are championed in aspects of data collection, particularly in in-depth interviews, because of the resonance and relevance conveyed in expressive responses. However, rationalism is prided in real-time. Beyond labs or methodologies, emotions are largely discredited. They serve as sites of weakness, more so in a sense of volatility than vulnerability.
Yet despite her conscious and clever quips, the sight of her seated amidst bursting book shelves and piles of papers inclined me to think she was vulnerable. Still, she is defined less by the wraith that wafts between us and more by an air of resilient resignation. She knows her truth. More than that, she knows the lies: institutional, incorrigible insights that pervade the populace. This knowledge draws her to romance, a unified and foundational subject that is less truth than a discursive production.
Her conception of carnality was cultivated by classics; mostly anonymous, Victorian and Edwardian erotica. When she was younger, she stole into sectioned off library stacks to read into these manuscripts. That was after she had outgrown the Harlequins she’d smuggled out of thrift stores, paying for them when her mother was out of sight.
“I must’ve been ten when I read my first Harlequin,” she rolls her eyes. “I’ll never forget it. It was so…corny. I mean, it was hot. Well, it seemed hot, but it was really corny. I thought it was just the book, but I realized it wasn’t after I read more—and it wasn’t just Harlequin.”
She recalls there being a number of brands, but the only ones that come to mind immediately are Avon and Kensington besides Harlequin. She also recalls an author whose tweets on diversity and activism are widely shared despite their outright orientalist novels.
“It’s all lies,” Vera shrugs. “If you won’t call it lies, I guess you can call it ignorance. The woman writes about gypsies and brownface as a means to an end, but is bought and sold as a social justice champion.”
Even referenced by some of the platforms Vera follows and submitted to, collectives committed to the cause.
This is how she recognizes that there is some revelation in her rejection: because she can parse the parallels between general publishing houses and allegedly activist avenues. Neither are all-inclusive despite their decorous disclaimers, and authors who oblige orientalism like the one she described are widely sold and bought because collectives are consumptive to the point of being inattentive.
Vera smirks through a spoonful of cereal, “It doesn’t matter if it’s indie or industry. It’s all business: the business of belonging and being wanted. Whether you pay in lip service or cash, it’s all about getting bought and sold.”
The reality of the rhetoric involved in the formation of flesh and favour is undeniable. The rhetoric is rigid with denial or disdain for difference. Vera is not aloft, but nonetheless adrift. She is maintained by monotony lest she risk exposure or further erasure by emotion.
As a self-described mutt, she faces murky identity politics. “It’s all about parts. There’s no whole, just pieces…and it’s never enough. When you can’t clearly define something or someone, they become invalid or suspect.”
She relates a number of instances of this, where she was alienated or assaulted by those she considered kinfolk; but she pauses frequently to assert that acknowledgement doesn’t mean making false equivalencies. Vera is aware of her privileges as a light-skinned multiracial cis woman, as a university student, as someone with a place to live, and so forth. That awareness comes from her intersectional feminism and altogether critical consideration. She knows her traumas cannot and will not compare to those more marginalized, but she also knows her traumas are still valid in and of themselves.
But, Vera doesn’t discuss them. I don’t know if it’s because she wills herself to be withdrawn; if she duly distrusts the disingenuous avenues and collectives, if she sees the sea of sanctimonious platitudes for its truly toxic tides and knows its surf will spit back every disclosure to drown her.
She tells me she can’t swim.
FALLEN MATTHEWS is a Black, Métis cis woman and current grad student in gender studies, with concentrations in interpersonality, existentialism, psychoanalysis, and social theory. She’s been published in Model View Culture, Coalition Zine, Social Dissonance, and the Journal of Comparative Media Arts; in addition to her own erotic fiction under the penname “Fallen Kittie.”
This essay previously appeared in Royals: The Grovels & Graces of a Ghostwriter and Rueful Romantic, by Fallen Matthews.