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Persistence Notes

Posted by on September 11, 2014

“I never would have continued as a writer if The Temple of Gold had not been taken by the first publisher I sent it to. I’m not that masochistic. There was no way I was going to write anymore. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now. There was no encouragement; no one ever said I had any talent. I had never written anything much over two pages long. I had done badly in school in terms of writing. I did not want to be a failure, but I did not have the courage to write a second book if the first had not been accepted.”

—William Golden, in Richard Andersen, William Goldman, Twayne Publishers, 1979 p 26


I imagine many have felt the same. How many of them wrote books that were not taken by the first publisher they sent it to? Or

The novel was accepted by the first publisher he sent it to — “William Goldman, an Early Success,” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 02 Aug 1964: l1.


“2012 fiction books published with an ISBN: adult fiction 67,254; YA and juvenile fiction 20,339”


Or, to put it another way, 67,000 novels published each year and you can’t get an agent to read your whole book. If one were to abandon the pursuit under these circumstances, to describe it as a “lack of persistence” seems like describing Germany’s surrender in the spring of 45 as evidencing a “lack of persistence.”


“The gesture of the romantic writer who dies undiscovered in his garret in order not to dirty himself with anything so sordid as publicity turns out to be an impossibility: greedy for original works, there are too many publishers keeping their commercial and printing machinery in constant motion for the writer with any talent at all to die unrecognized.”

–Jose Donoso, “The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History,” Columbia University Press, 1972, p. 70


I.e., if you have talent, even if you try to fail, you’ll still succeed. Imagine, then, how bad they who try to succeed and still fail must be.

Also: “You know what made [Impostor Syndrome] go away? The frickin’ Hugo award. *Not* selling oodles of novels; anyone could write books and sell them! That doesn’t mean you’re not faking it. But winning a Hugo made the sense of being a fake go away. It began to come back after 3-4 years, but then I won another. And I’m pretty sure I left it dead at the crossroads with the third Hugo.” –Charles Stross, January 31, 2016

Anyone can write and sell oodles of novels.  Anyone!  That’s no accomplishment!  So the people who failed even to do what anyone can do, how pathetic must they be?

“My group was Woody and George and Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Rodney Dangerfield. Dick Cavett. All the ones who were coming up at the same time. […] Everybody broke through ahead of me. I was the last one in the group to break through. […] I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show.” —Joan Rivers,


Many think this way, that there is a quite small group of people trying to succeed in these professions. Successful people like Joan Rivers are probably especially prone to believe this, as it diminishes the role luck may have played in their success. Were Woody and George and Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfrield, Dick Cavett, and Joan Rivers really the only ones trying to “break through” in whatever year that was, or were those who tried and failed to become professional comics simply edited out of the memoirs and memories like Vladimir Clementis? Or is it more likely that list describes a group of friends who succeeded together; if one were to succeed by chance, he could pull the others up after him (like Cosby pushing for Rivers to be on the Tonight Show). It seems an unusually high proportion of famous people were friends with other future celebrities before they became famous (; if one believed their fame derived from some kind of quality they possess, one would have to say it’s purely a coincidence that Robert Downey Jr, Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, and Charlie Sheen all happened to have that quality and were friends in high school. They say infinite monkeys sitting at typewriters would eventually produce a complete typescript of Hamlet or whatever. However, once one of them comes to you with his work, would you, having found this god among monkeys, bet your life savings that the next play he’ll produce will be Macbeth? The more monkeys typing, the greater the likelihood the cohort will succeed at something.


“You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years.” —ibid.

CK was born in 1967; his forties began in 2007; the “hitting” Rivers refers to is certainly the wave of critical adulation that attended upon the premier of his television show, “Louie,” starting in 2010, making him 43. He had indeed be doing it for twenty years, having starting performing regularly in 1986, but were those years of “struggle,” of not “hitting,” or were they in fact years of considerable success?

In 2006 (age 39) Louis created, produced, wrote, and starred in an HBO television program, “Lucky Louie.” If one believed that only a few people were trying to write and star in television shows, then it would be reasonable to assume doing so doesn’t constitute much of an achievement.

In 2005 he had another half hour special on HBO.

In 2001 (age 34) he directed a movie with a budget of 7 million and Paramount distribution. He was fired, but I bet he got to keep the fee.

In 1999 won Emmy for best writing on a variety show.

In 1996 (age 29) had a half hour special on HBO. It can be seen online at:

Look at the size of the audience. Consider how successful with other audiences he must have been in order to be tapped by HBO for this half hour special.

Starting in 1990 (age 23), he “was living in New York City, doing stand up comedy all over the country” ( One can assume by this he was making a living from stand-up at this point. If doing so counted as failure, as not “hitting,” one wonders why he didn’t go back to his previous job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.


Louis CK isn’t a good example of the virtues of persistence at all, unless “persistence” now means “continuing to do successful and remunerative activities.” Because, far from struggling “in spite of opposition, obstacles, discouragement, etc.” (, he is in fact an example of a person who was very successful from a very young age. I don’t doubt there were times he felt discouraged, but discouragement is relative to one’s situation. The “discouragement” of a man making eighty grand a year in a profession where 90% of the practitioners make zilch is quite different from the discouragement of the man making zilch. The “discouragement” of a man who can’t get on Letterman as often as he’d like, or whose movie was mistreated by the studio, is quite different from the discouragement of the man who makes no money at all from his pursuit. One has to look, not at the persistence, but at the circumstances that caused the persistence.


Here’s something I hear a lot: “knowing [successful book X] had been rejected a dozen times gives me hope”


Maybe. But there’s another way to look at it, which is, to my mind, more logical. It is: “If even such a good book as [successful book X] could be rejected a dozen times, how many more equally good books are rejected thirteen times, or fourteen, or fifteen, or however many times was necessary to make its author abandon the effort?” If the example of [successful book X] shows we can’t necessarily consider a book bad just because it’s been rejected by a dozen publishers, is there any number of rejections that will “prove” a book is bad?


“I wrote another story, called “The Last Lonely Man.” It was rejected by literally every single American SF magazine—and there were more of them then than there are now. (I seem to recall it was also turned down by some slicks.) Ultimately Michael Moorcock accepted it for New Worlds. It was thereupon chosen for not one but two annuals of the year’s best; it was anthologised a third time the same year; it was adapted and very well produced for BBC television. It was the same story. I hadn’t changed one word.”

—John Brunner, “The Happening Worlds of John Brunner,” Joe de Bolt, editor, 1975, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press Corp.


Despite the protestations of editors that the slush pile is nothing but garbage, we have no real reason to say that the books/stories that are rejected are necessarily worse than the one that are accepted.


Poe and Rimbaud


Rimbaud is a bad example for the virtues of persistence because he did not persist. He gave up. He wrote no poetry after age 20, and lived to 37. The subsequent 17 years were occupied with just trying to make a living. (Biographers have attempted to explain the “mystery” of his abandonment of literature. I feel there is likely no mystery at all. Many “sensitive” teenagers or college-age persons write poetry but give it up upon getting a job. No elaborate explanation is needed. The only difference between them and Rimaud is Rimbaud’s work is regarded as good.)


Today Poe is widely regarded as having been unsuccessful in his lifetime. However success is relative. Before he was the age I am now, he’d sold 43 stories and dozens of poems. He’d made, in inflation-adjusted terms, tens of thousands of dollars off his writing. So bringing up Poe is like saying, “A famous failure was way more successful than you. You are significantly less successful than a famous failure.”


“Since I first began editing in the early 1950’s I have discovered, chortled over and published the first stories of at least a half-dozen authors.” —Harry Harrison, Introduction to Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home by James Tiptree Jr, 1973

Wow! A whole half dozen? “At least,” he says, so it could’ve been more—maybe seven, or eight… is nine too many to hope for? In twenty years? How many stories of all kinds did he read in that time? From the context Harrison offered this information in the spirit of, “Look at me, aren’t I great?” While unintentionally revealing the opposite. Also Harrison uses the word “obviosity.”


Robert Galbraith saga. Millions who wouldn’t touch “Robert Galbraith” with a cattle prod leap at the chance to read the same book if it’s written by “J.K. Rowling.” If “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was indeed the stuff of best-sellers, it certainly wasn’t apparent to readers until the author’s name was changed.


The question of why was the Galbraith book published by the same company as published earlier Rowling books. We know it was submitted, anonymously, to at least one other British publisher (and was rejected). Was this the only other publisher it was submitted to? Seems unlikely, though no others have stepped forward to admit this embarrassing fact. We know also that Sphere, division of Little Brown and publisher of “Cuckoo’s Calling” and Rowling’s previous book for adults, “The Casual Vacancy,” knew the true identity of Galbraith, that is, she did not attempt to perpetrate the subterfuge on them. Galbraith also shared an agent with Rowling; he was likely in on the deception too. Seems likeliest the book was submitted anonymously to many and rejected by all; thereupon Rowling fell back onto Plan B, which was to use pre-existing relationships to have the book published; the deception, then, would only be on the public. The point of this kind of stunt is (often; there are other reasons, but this is the reason I think plainly is operating in this case), as with Richard Bachman, to demonstrate that he or she can succeed without the advantage of a famous name; if you do it twice, it’s not luck (dubious, but many think this way). Fortunately such experiments do yield results; this one showed she can’t (though I doubt that’s how she sees it). Many have remarked on the fact that a well-reviewed book by an unknown author (whom many have claimed is a genius [though it’s weird, isn’t it, that so few can recognize this genius when not sanctioned by bestseller lists? {Another way to put that is, “Even the work of people who are regarded as geniuses will almost certainly be ignored.” Often when established writers give advice, they’ll add, “Go ahead and do the opposite, if you’re a genius.” Unfortunately the Galbraith saga teaches us that even if you are a genius, you’ll probably still fail.  <This seems like a definitive answer to the question, “Did she sell a lot of copies because she’s a genius or produced a work of genius, or is she called a genius because she sold a lot of copies?”  It seems clear the selling of many copies came first; the Galbraith saga is strong evidence for our theory that talent is what we say, after the fact, that successful people have, not a pre-existing trait that causes success>}]) can only expect to sell 1,500 copies; fewer have remarked on the probability that without Rowling’s advantages, the book would not have been published at all.


“With the top ten of top-40 songs played twice as much on radio channels as they were a decade ago, and the top one percent of artists receiving over 75 percent of CD and music-subscription-­service revenue.” Vanessa Grigoriadis, “Justin Bieber: A Case Study in Growing Up Cosseted and Feral,” New York Magazine, 2 July 2014,


Increasing concentration of rewards. The degree to which the fantastic successes of today exceed the successes of yesteryear reflects a change in economic systems, not a change in the quality of the products, which may, for all we know, have declined.


“The greatest delight of being a Harry Potter reader is not so much in the books themselves as it is with whispering to readers, strangers and friends, from age eight to age eighty — about our favorite moments, theories for the end of the series, which characters we trust and which we don’t.” —commenter “Summer,” July 21, 2005, 4:50 AM,


Past some mysterious threshold, popularity breeds popularity. Can a cultural product reach that threshold by chance? If external factors can account for the success of a product above that threshold, can (other) external factors account for it below it? Primacy of economic and behavioral systems, network effect. No need to look at the books to explain their success; look at behavior w/r/t the books. This mechanism also increasing in strength.


“I wrote myself a check for ten million dollars for acting services rendered and I gave myself five years, or three years maybe, and I dated it Thanksgiving 1995. I put it in my wallet and it deteriorated and deteriorated. And but then, just before Thanksgiving 1995, I found out I was going to make ten million dollars on, I think it was, Dumb & Dumber.” —Jim Carrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show, February 17, 1997,


How many others also wrote themselves postdated checks for 10 million only to quietly rip them up years later? Carrey and a lot of other celebrities are big believers in the Law of Attraction. Of course they are; they visualized being rich and famous, and then they became so. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The fetishization of persistence is basically the same thing as the Law of Attraction.

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