“The Value of Literary Rejection”

On the Death of Miklós Vajda (1931–2017)

I’ve just learned from George Szirtes that Miklós Vajda has died. He was a translator and editor of The Hungarian Quarterly — and he taught me an enormously valuable lesson early in my career. It took me a long time to understand that every editor who has rejected my fiction has done me a favor. That’s especially true of the man I once heard described as “Hungary’s greatest living philosopher.”

The first story I ever published, in a now-defunct print journal, required twenty-five fresh drafts. When it finally appeared it did so next to some prose by one of my heroes, Andy Kaufman. That made the whole maddening process worth it; those twenty-four rejections proved invaluable. The most formative rejection I’ve ever, however, came from Vajda in 1995. It said:

“Thank you for sending your story. I am sorry to say, however, I found it crudely written, superficial and much too long for the little it says to say. It seems your main concern must have been finding expression for the contempt you feel for your colleagues, for modern art, people in general. You have talent but this story does little to prove it.”

That is a tremendous rejection. Over a decade later, I read a subsequent — and published — version of that same story at my MFA graduation. The opportunity to continue to improving a story is one I’ve learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal “crude, superficial and too long” test before I send it out. RIP Vajda Miklós.

[Adapted from something I once contributed to The Millions.]