My Journey Through a Literary Labyrinth

The best way to learn someone’s secret is to have them write a story. 

“So it really happened?” one reviewer demanded. “The professor made her do. . .that in exchange for raising her boyfriend’s grade?”

The author—still under a mandate of silence—shrugged.

“Is it based on your life?” someone else slyly asked.

Nostrils flared, eyes popped wide open, and vigorous head shaking commenced.

“What have we here?” Our creative writing teacher broke into the circle and we jumped away from the manuscript as if burned. 

He read the title for himself and sighed. “Oh. This one. So tell me, what inspired you here?”

It was one of Tokyo’s less flattering days; low-hanging storm clouds and smog had eaten up the twisted architecture of Shinjuku’s shimmery towers, forcing my eyes instead to the squatting apartments where housewives tried to save their laundry, or the alleyways where salarymen fought with their plastic umbrellas. Not the most alluring of muses. 

Finally allowed to speak, the author gazed around the group in triumph. No two people here shared the same native language but fortunately, pretentious prose and a tendency for melodrama are universal.

“My story was inspired by events at this very university,” she announced. We all gasped, while our teacher’s placid expression would have put a monk to shame. 

Dignity under duress: it’s a skill one quickly masters in Japan. 

That professor?” someone spluttered. “So, those rumors are true? About the student and the abortion and his divorce and. . .”

“It was a gripping story,” our teacher loudly told the author. “I enjoyed it. Well done. Next piece, please.”

I held up my manuscript. He paged through it for fifteen seconds and I sat up straight, craving critique, praying for feedback, hoping against hope for even a backhanded compliment. Anything to push me forward in that hopeless yet irresistible journey towards becoming a writer. 

The teacher fixed me with an empty look. “Both your stories feature sexual assault. And tea. Why’s that?”

Six sets of eager eyes settled on me.

“Gender violence is a pressing issue in my home country of India,” I shrugged. “And I enjoy tea.”

The teacher nodded slowly, before strolling over to another group. 

Dear Author,

Thank you for sending us your query. However, we are unable to. . .

There are over a 100 of these letters in my inbox—form rejections from literary agencies across America, India, and the UK, dating from 2012 and still sliding in. And these are just from the ones who deigned to reply.

In eight years, I’ve written four books. Three of them will thankfully never see the light of day. The reason: I was born in 1996, so you can guess at my standard of writing. However, I completed book number four at the respectable age of 23, after two creative writing workshops and seven rounds of editing, three of which included reading the 100,000-word manuscript aloud. Strepsils are my best friend.

I have gathered some wisdom after eight years of failed queries. I learned that American agents are terrified of attachments, convinced that the next pdf in their inbox will release a virus that will destroy the Pentagon. On the other hand, British agents are exquisitely polite and will actually use your name and try to personalize their rejections. Meanwhile, Indian agents are not so much people as they are temperamental forces of nature. I have a query template for each culture.

. . .but this is such a subjective business. . .

I was brutally taught that just weeks ago. A New York City star literary agent whose very shoes I would have kissed for representation requested one of my full manuscripts when I was 17. She rejected it in the end but sent feedback and praise; it was the farthest I’d ever reached into that exalted, higher world and needless to say, her words went completely to my head. 

I emailed her last month and confidently pitched book number four, certain that she would love my query, request the full manuscript, fall in love with said manuscript, and then email me a contract that very week. After all, numerous things had improved in six years, starting with my habit of injecting an adverb before every verb. I’d also learned how to indent my paragraphs. Exciting times were ahead and I was certain my future was set. 

The agent rejected my query in less than a week. Subjective business indeed. 

Or she remembered my name. 

. . .Agency is looking for works of literary fiction written by diverse, POC authors about a range of subjects, such as [insert themes exclusively from the last novel written by a white, male author who got a six figure advance]

So what is literary?  

The question destroyed my very joy of reading for a good while as I tried to balance the two on my book list. I forced stream of consciousness prose and nihilistic sex scenes on myself, but my uncivilized heart pined for fantasy worlds, dystopias, sword-wielding heroes, brisk banter, and worst of all… .drama

I studied authors who skillfully straddled both worlds (I do not name them here out of fear for my safety) and I wondered how to softly elevate my own writing without losing its earthiness. I tried the old tricks: maudlin descriptions of nature, unnecessary philosophizing on the subject of spices, and I added an astounding array of abnormal alliterations.

The end result looked like what you might get after slapping patches of gold leaf over someone’s perfectly serviceable face. I took down the embellishments and decided to let my future readers worry about the literary/commercial binary. 

. . .as you continue your search for representation. . .

At last there comes that time when the scorching desire to be published cools to something safer, wiser and more malleable. The frustration evaporates and you skate over your own words with fond nostalgia, sighing at them the way you would at a child trying to form letters with clueless fingers.

The signs are unmistakable.

It’s time to set this story aside and begin another.

Words by Sahana Venugopal

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