Should you alter your work to fit the market?
The Orca staff shares a lot about the writing life among our members. Recently one of the staff lamented that she had been receiving nothing but rejections for her submissions in the last few weeks. Rejection is always a common topic among writers, and thousands of articles and blogs have been written about its emotional impact, and how to deal with it. Writers have heard the advice to toughen their skins, to celebrate rejection, to silently curse the decision makers, and on and on.
But as our discussion continued we started to talk about another dimension of rejection. Not how it affected our psyche, but how it might affect our writing, for better or sometimes, worse. For most writers a rejection sends a message that there’s something off about the writing, even if they feel in their hearts that the story is as good as it can possibly be, and says exactly what they want to say. And if a story receives a lot of rejection—perhaps months or even years go by without the work being published—that feeling intensifies. And that’s when writers start to think about how to revise. It’s how they think about revision that’s the question here.
As writers we’re always trying to improve our craft—or at least we should be. If persistent rejection leads to efforts to find flaws in the writing, such as parts of a story that don’t resonate or create character sympathy, that’s potentially a good thing. Maybe it’s time to find an editor, or resubmit it to your writers group, or find a new writers group. But what if rejection compelled writers to alter their work to fit the market?
We want our work to be published. It’s not only validation of our talent, but a path to possible career success. It’s pretty hard to make a living as a writer. Most writers I know make more money editing, teaching, and through day jobs or side hustles, than they do through their published work. It’s natural to want to make whatever changes necessary to find acceptance. But in doing so do we lose something—our individual voices, our originality, our imagination?
Assume for a moment that you’ve written a spectacular short story. You’ve submitted it to literary journals for months and have received nothing but rejection. You know it’s good. You believe in it and what it says. You’ve workshopped it and everyone loves it. You’ve sent it to a professional editor who refused the job because she felt the work could not be improved. But you can’t help noticing that the journals you send it to, particularly the ones where a publishing credit would be a big boost to your career, deal with topics that are different from yours. And that’s when you start thinking about altering your work to fit what they print.
But when you do, you’re no longer writing the story you were originally had in mind—what you wanted to say. Instead you’re now writing what someone else wants to say, and trust me, the difference shows. For example, we sometimes receive submissions of short stories about racial and gender issues that are obviously written by white men from the boomer generation. Those stories are almost always filled with attempts to pander to current social values, and make generalizations that reveal their lack of knowledge about what’s really happening in our culture. In a way, those stories are just as stereotypical as some of the attitudes from decades ago that these writers appear to be trying to renounce.
Good writers know that success in this business is alchemy. It’s an inexact combination of talent, luck, timing, networking, and perseverance. Leave out any one of those and you will probably not achieve the success you believe you deserve. Success isn’t giving in to what appears to be popular. That need to conform to a certain paradigm in order to be successful only breeds mediocrity—that’s the outcome of too many people writing the same things in the same way, no matter how well written it appears to be. Who wants to be considered a mediocre writer?
Perhaps this says something about the contradiction of being a writer in 2023. How can a person be true to their art and true to themselves if they have to pay so much attention to the market? (Not to mention social media.) Popularity, and therefore taste in art, is largely driven by people who know nothing about creating it, so to give into that pressure is a kind of surrender, and a kind of personal cheat to one’s self. But as artists we crave that attention. And we have to survive, and survival means finding a way to create value in the market. So how can we not give into market pressure? I don’t know if the two aspects can ever be reconciled. But then it’s always been that way. For centuries successful artists had patrons, and those patrons definitely had influence over the work. Now we don’t have patrons, we have posses, and the influence they wield is just as great. No wonder so many artists have committed suicide. Perhaps the greatest writers were ones we’ve never heard of.
Is it self-confidence to resist giving into market pressure, or is it simply stubbornness?
I sometimes think about writers like William Saroyan, who reportedly received 7,000 rejections before selling his first short story. And William H. Gass, whose short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is now an American classic. But, said Gass in an interview, “I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent.” I could go on for hours about great writers who received hundreds or thousands of rejections before becoming established. Just keep in mind that eventually they did make it without giving into market pressures.
The decision on what to do when you receive those bushels, those hordes, those tsunamis of rejection is, of course, yours. Will you give in? Or will you keep believing in what you have to say? Which matters more?
Note: ICYWW, it may sound contradictory for me to be talking about staying true to your voice and vision, when I’ve just published the book of essays titled, “Reader Centered Writing.” But the essays are about understanding reader psychology—what appeals on a subconscious level to readers. It has nothing to do with pandering to market tastes.
– Joe Ponepinto
 I’m not talking about ignoring a publication’s guidelines, such as sending a space opera to a journal that only publishes literary flash fiction. Instead I’m alluding to popular trends within a genre of the same style as your work.
 From a 1995 interview with BOMB. A little more: “Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.” No wonder he’s one of my literary heroes.