Posted on April 3, 2011


Being rejected hurts. But for a writer, rejections are part and parcel of the game. Even our best and biggest authors have received humiliating rejections, Melanie Sheridan learns.

We’ve all heard about famous books that were rejected – perhaps several times – before finding a publisher and lasting acclaim. At least a dozen major publishers are said to have rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before Bloomsbury finally accepted it, reputedly at the behest of the publisher’s eight-year-old daughter. But just how common are such rejections?

Quite common, actually. Famous and now-beloved authors of all backgrounds writing in every genre have been knocked back, many of them multiple times. Names such as Agatha Christie, Dr Seuss, Anaïs Nin, John Le Carré and Stephen King, and books including Lord Of The Flies, Lolita and The Wind In The Willows, were all rejected.

Numerous iconic Jewish authors have also suffered the same fate. In a 2007 essay for the The New York Times, David Oshinsky notes that New York publishing house Alfred A Knopf Inc turned down the English-language rights to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl after receiving a reader’s report describing the work as a “very dull [and] dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.”

Another rejection of the now-famous diary read: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” In total, at least 16 publishers rejected it before Doubleday took the punt in 1952, and ended up with one of the best-selling books in history.

The Knopf reader’s report (a manuscript review commissioned by the editors and publishers who must decide the work’s fate) is contained in a vast archive of documents held at the University of Texas. This archive also shows that Knopf – home to at least 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors and 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning works – also rejected manuscripts by Mordecai Richler, author of Solomon Gursky Was Here and Barney’s Vision, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman.

In Rotten Rejections: The Letters That Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent, editor André Bernard has compiled letters, in-house memos and historical anecdotes detailing rejections to many of literature’s best-loved writers. Some are pragmatic, such as this rejection of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep: “as a practical commercial venture I am against it”. Others are abrupt, such as the rejection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s In My Father’s Court with a simple “too pedestrian” (in the Knopf archives is another Singer rejection, decrying his work for being about “Poland and the rich Jews again”).

Then there are the more detailed rejections. A baffled editor knocked back Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, admitting to not having “the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say”.

The editor continued: “Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level. He has two devices, both bad, which he works constantly … This, as you may imagine, constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.”

Harsh, but it is followed by a rather prescient couple of sentences: “It is always possible that a reader who goes in for this zany-epigram stuff will think it is a work of genius, and of course he may be right. But from your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.”

There’s a rumour that Catch-22’s title arose due to the number of times the manuscript was rejected, but there seems little truth to this. The novel was originally named Catch-18 – that number having significant meaning in Judaism, which had more emphasis in the early drafts – but the title was rejected to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’ Mila 18, which had just been published.

Rotten Rejections also notes that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen was rejected for being “too long, too static, too repetitious, too ponderous and a long list of other negative ‘toos’.” According to the same rejection letter, Potok “has no novelistic sense whatever; he just tells you every blessed thing that the characters said and did and thought in the order in which it occurred … most of the time it is solidly, monumentally boring.”

On other other side of the equation are the publishing house employees who have to write the rejection letters. In her two-year publishing career sifting through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, Jean Hannah Edelstein estimates that she rejected at least 1000 books – some of which went on to sell for lots of money elsewhere.

“Writing rejection letters is a delicate skill,” she wrote in The Guardian. “It is not easy to achieve and balance the two central goals of a truly accomplished rejection letter: trying not to make the writer feel distraught whilst also discouraging him or her from ever contacting you ever again.”

However, she admits that books were frequently rejected “with the standard knockback letter”. Indeed, as most contemporary aspiring writers who’ve received a rejection letter or several will know, the craft of writing rejection letters seems to be vanishing art. It would be a rare publisher these days who would tailor a rejection letter such as that sent by publisher Arthur C Fifield to Gertrude Stein (whose style has been described as “repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated [and] lending itself to derisory parody”):

“I am only one, only one, only. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only 60 minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S by one post.”

Rotten Rejections: The Letters That Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent was originally published by Pushcart Press in 1990. Your local library may have a copy.

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