Editor and former literary agent Mary Cunnane recently took a swipe at publishing pros who publicly wallow in the disdain they feel for writers, using social media to broadcast “the sins of yet another supplicant who failed to contact her in the preferred manner, didn’t read her submission guidelines, or asked her to be friends on Facebook and then sent her a publishing pitch. The nerve.”
As you can guess, Cunnane’s take is less than sympathetic. She tells of one publishing pro whose tweets detail “how exhausted she is from her many travails: manuscripts to read; rights fairs to prepare for; dinner parties and literary festivals to attend … #Queryfail, though, is what seems to send her over the edge, scrabbling for the smelling salts to ward off the vapours.”
In fact, her main point is to scold her colleagues for their arrogance and cruelty:
The tone of exasperation, irritation, and sometimes even downright anger is telling. Someone is trying to get the attention of a publishing professional and is breaching the rules and/or being unrealistic and/or totally clueless. Those folks are the outsiders, the others are the insiders. God help the first if they annoy the second… SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement and a sense of besiegement, the last perhaps a sign of the anxious, proverbial-over-tea-kettle state publishing has been in since 2008. But without writers, publishers are nowhere: should they therefore be made to feel they must storm the battlements in order to get even a look-in?
(Of course, I would add to Cunnane’s jeremiad that, in many cases the gate-keepers of traditional publishing create their own barbarians by broadcasting encouragement to every Tom, Jill, and Mary that they should write a novel.)
And, to be clear, Cunnane is not talking about the gentle, head-shaking, “what was this person thinking?” type of after-action humor we all engage in. She admits to having “tweeted about a silly query, e.g. ‘To The Mary Cunnane Agency. Dear Sir’.”
What’s she’s talking about is public shaming, essentially a relational aggression tactic: establishing a brute-force pecking order that conveys, even to good writers, how they had damn-well-better behave if they know what’s good for them.
But, what struck me most about Cunnane’s literary finger-wagging was how vividly it reminded me of what might have been the best dating advice I ever received in my life.
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE
BUT EVERY MEDICINE IS ALSO A POISON
A female friend once told me (and we can assume this works no matter who you are or which sex you want to date) that before I ever considered dating a woman I should watch her turn someone down.
We were in a bar at the time, a happy hour gathering of co-workers, and had just witnessed one of the most humiliating rejections imaginable. Not only did the girl not wait until the guy turned away before laughing at him with her friends, laughter was the only response she gave him. To his face.
My friend put it this way: “If she can treat another human being like that, it doesn’t matter how nice she treats you when she’s into you. That cruelty is still inside of her somewhere, waiting to come out once you fall short, or she finds someone new, or she just gets tired of you.”
The same thing applies to the professional realm. Sometimes feelings get hurt in business—it’s inevitable—but there’s a huge gap between decisiveness and cruelty. Making hard decisions, including turning down offers, is simply how any sort of business has to be done if it is to be done effectively, efficiently, and ethically. Mocking people on the bad end of those hard decisions is itself a separate choice, far beyond the hard decision itself.
Approaching a lit agent or other publishing pro is like asking someone out. Observing how they treat those they turn down lets you in on their character, and gives you a good idea what might happen to you one day if you write an inevitable bad story or make some etiquette faux pas that violates the caste structure of the publishing tribe.
Writers, if you see an agent gleefully shaming aspiring writers in public, as Mary Cunnane describes, steer clear. There are plenty of publishing fish in the sea.
ABOUT MORE THAN JUST BEING POLITE
IT’S ABOUT BEING RATIONAL
At first this might seem merely a question of courtesy or politeness, what it means to be a decent human being. But, deep down, it’s really a question about what objective, professional, rational behavior looks like.
Bathing in someone else’s failure indicates at some level that you enjoy failure, and this is a clear indicator of someone who might make an impractical decision just to create more failure to mock.
Once upon an anecdotal evidence, I was part of a hiring group meeting to discuss questions for candidates in an upcoming round of interviews. One of the managers gleefully told the tale of an IT analyst whose technical qualifications were fantastic but who made the mistake of wearing white socks with dress clothes. He chuckled while telling us he sent this guy packing in a hurry.
“So, you hired someone with weaker computer skills?” I asked.
“Well, I wasn’t going to hire a guy who can’t even dress himself!”
The suite of programs this guy implemented, by the way, was a disaster zone so radioactive that nobody wanted to come within two office codes of it. Had he hired the best people and simply gave them some free fashion advice, heaven only knows how much better things might have turned out.
Social instincts are the seedbeds of cognitive bias, and public shaming is part of the social hierarchy instinct suite. Finding joy in pounding out a pecking order can severely bias one’s rational, professional judgment. Rather than glorifying in it like a bunch of snarky cool kids in a Middle School cafeteria, professionals should nip this sort of thing in the bud whenever they see it in their colleagues.
Kudos to Mary Cunnane for taking the professional high ground on this one!