David Oshinsky’s piece on rejection letters written by Knopf editors is most pleasing.1 It’s sobering, but also reassuring, to learn that some of the best and most popular books have been rejected. Perhaps, you tell yourself, I am in that company and some day I too will be discovered. Afterall, Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected all over.
The Knopf editors and readers said “No!” to an astonishing array of legendary writers:
The [Knopf] rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).
It’s easy to look at this list and think, “The fools!” But then I think of the published books I’d’ve passed on were I an editor. There would be so very many of them!
Anything by Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski would’ve gotten a big old no. So would Moby Dick. Stupid boring doorstop! Not to mention the Gormenghast books. I’ve tried to read them a billion times and can never get past the first few chapters. Boooooring!
I would also have said no to a number of huge selling YAs over the years, not to mention many many many bestselling fantasy series. And even more bestsellers on the adult fiction list. I’m so sad I can’t name living writers . . .
If it’d been up to me Isaac Asimov would never have found his way into print. Not his fiction anyway. I adore his letters. Nor would there have been any Lensmen or anything by A. E. Van Vogt. In fact, classic American sf of the thirties and forties would be looking very very anaemic after I’d got done with it. (Which would have made writing my thesis about bad science fiction tricky to say the least. On the other hand, then I wouldn’t have spent four years reading some of the worst dreck imaginable . . . )
The Pilgrim’s Progress I’d’ve rejected before I got past the first page. Same with The Woman in White. Blerk! There’d be no Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes (sorry, Maureen, and all the Holmes fanatics who will now no longer read my blog).
Wow. This is way too much fun. Now, I’m starting to compose mean rejection letters:
Dear Mr Henry Miller,
It is with no regret at all that I decline to publish The Tropic of Cancer. This isn’t a novel—it’s a vicious and self-aggrandizing tediously boring tract. It’s possible, though unlikely, that there may be persons other than yourself who are interested in the size of your bed flute. This editor, however, is not one of them.
Might I suggest you seek counselling immediately? Your misogyny is so out of control that if you don’t seek help you will wind up in gaol for some vile crime committed against your poor wife. Her, I have written to recommend a good divorce lawyer.
Your sincerely etc.
Sadly, as the list above demonstrates, one “No!”—sometimes even dozens of them—is not enough to keep a book out of print. Even if I could go back in time I could not have saved the world from Henry Miller. Not unless I shot him before he wrote a word but, as we have established, killing people is wrong.
Update: This update is for the angry people sending me nasty emails who appear to have missed my point. I will be boringly explicit: Tastes vary. That is my point. No editor in the world will like every book no matter how fabulous. They buy books to suit their tastes and their publishing list. Thus they pass on what many consider genius. Sometimes those editors regret their decision, sometimes they don’t. No book or writer is universally loved.
I happen to really dislike cosies and most procedurals thus Sherlock Holmes bores me. Fortunately we live in a complex world with varied tastes. I would not like to live in a world where I had the final say on all books published. Nor would I like to live in a world where any one person had that power. Especially certain friends of mine because then we’d have no Angela Carter or Raymond Chandler or Jean Rhys or Walter Mosley or Lisa Saint Aubin de Teran or Flowers in the Attic.
Just so you know “Sherlock Holmes” and associated words are in my kill file. No angry letters about him will get through to me.
Note to self: Never diss Sherlock Holmes in public.
I am now very very very certain that my policy of never dissing living writers is a wise one.