Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters


It’s hard to imagine that the definitive icons of literature could have been subject to the same iciness of the high-gated publishing-house “no” machines that we know all too well. Of course, even down-to-earth publishers can miss a great work sitting on their desks; with thousands of titles of varying merit clogging editors’ mailboxes, it’s impossible to skim every page of every slush-pile manuscript, let alone give it its proper consideration. Furthermore, some of our most adored geniuses churned out well-spotted crap before maturing into the artists we remember.

Prescience is no hard science, but hindsight can be a kick in the shins nonetheless, especially for the editors who sent these rejection letters to writers who would later become the bestselling, influential giants of their day — and ours.

Rejected: an overly verbose manuscript by Gertrude Stein

Publisher Arthur Fifield must have been very proud of this lampoon of Stein’s — admittedly confounding, provocative — style. At the time, 1912, she was only beginning to enter the literary scene and hadn’t yet established the reputation that would draw in great artists, writers, and personalities through the rest of her career and life. The manuscript in question might not have amounted to much, but after being rejected by Fifield, she did become an accomplished, bestselling author, with titles like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Moreover, her expat Paris living room became the epicenter of a rich art world, one her famed contemporaries visited for contacts, review, and social company — and one whose fruits are, today, examined and reexamined by theorists, academics, and critics worldwide.

The letter reads:

Dear Madam, I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty 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 M.S. 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.” Sincerely Yours, A.C. Fifield

[Image via “Publication is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives.” The Missouri Review. Volume 23, Number 3, 2000, pp. 83-86. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/missouri_review/summary/v023/23.3.article.html. Used with permission.]

Rejected: Signs of Water, a novel by Peter Matthiessen

Although Matthiessen started out as nothing but a promising young author trying to make it in the sea of sharks that lived in the publishing houses, the “painfully immature writer” blossomed into something of a literary it boy when he went to Paris, then a ganglion of letters, and collaborated with its famous life-long editor George Plimpton to found The Paris Review. As it turns out, Matthiessen was a CIA agent at the time and has since explained The Paris Review away as his cover. Nonetheless, it was a pretty believable cover, and while Signs of Water didn’t make it very far up the literary chain, Matthiessen did. The two Knopf editors who rejected him, identified on the reader report as Fox (JMF) and Vandrin (PV), have probably ground their teeth for their harsh remarks.

Matthiessen’s rejection slip and reader review, as well as many others from the Knopf archives, some in the pages to come, live in the treasure troves in Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which is where the Missouri Review went digging for them about a decade ago. This one reads as follows:

PV and JMF read this quickly over the weekend. It is a very bad novel, its cast of characters drawn from the same class as J.P. Marquand, Jr. portrayed recently. The action takes place over a weekend in a New England village by the sea. There are a great many flashbacks and the thoughts of every character are reported faithfully ad nauseum. But since these people and their thoughts are adolescent, banal, self-pitying, trivial and totally unsympathetic, this conscientiousness merely adds to our dislike of “Signs of Winter.” We had great hopes for this guy on the basis of a few short stories but Matthiessen is still a painfully immature writer who needs to write a great deal more and a very patient editor. Even so this does not seem salvageable to us—let someone else struggle if they will. REJECT. JMF 3/16/53 I concur. PV 3/16/53

Rejected: The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin

In 1968, Le Guin‘s agent received this rejection letter with regard to her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. This “unreadable” book, so described by the editor whose note is above and whose identity Le Guin protects, went on not only to be published but also to win the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1970 Hugo award — only two of many more the author has racked up. Considered one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time, Le Guin is held on par with Tolkien by scholars and is often regarded as the first to produce feminist texts within her genre.

[via The Saturday Evening Post ]

Rejected: three writing samples by Kurt Vonnegut

A decade and a half later, a writing sample by Vonnegut would have been accepted without a look beyond the author name, but in 1949, Kurt Vonnegut was a nobody, and the editors at The Atlantic Monthly had no big plans to lift him out of anonymity. After mailing the magazine three samples of his work, he received the above letter of rejection from editor Edward Weeks, which now hangs, framed, in Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. The following decades of Vonnegut’s career were characterized by a prolific output of award-winning novels, including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter-House Five, the latter of which is rumored to have developed out of one of the rejected samples.

Weeks’ mistake reads:

Dear Mr. Vonnegut, We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted for our purpose. Both the account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, “What’s a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?” have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance. Our staff continues fully manned so I cannot hold out the hope of an editorial assignment, but I shall be glad to know that you have found a promising opening elsewhere. Faithfully yours, Edward Weeks

Rejected: Lolita, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov

The novel that later went on to sell 50 million copies and become a timeless, esteemed classic first had to endure numerous rejections from publishing houses, including this one written by Mrs. Blanche Knopf herself. In 1956, one year after the English version of the book was published in Paris, Nabokov’s subject matter — the pervy Humbert Humbert’s incest-pedophilia double-whammy crush on his stepdaughter — was considered too taboo for American imprints. Until, that is, Walter Minton of G.O. Putnam and Sons came along and begged Olympia to publish it in 1958 in New York.

Blanche Knopf’s 1956 rejection letter, from the Knopf archives, reads:

Darling, This office has taken a long time to say no to Nabokov’s Lolita which you and I both know was impossible at least for us. Do you want the books back? I don’t imagine so in which case we will keep it for our blank department. But let me know. I wonder if any publisher will buy it. Will you please tell Renée that I had her charming letter. I have no news except that the Coco is holding his own. As soon as I know more, I will write. But it was enchanting of her to send me a line, and I am very grateful. We have all been upset about this affair. Bless. And all the best. As always, Mrs. W.A. Bradley 18 Quai de Bethune Paris 4, FRANCE BWK:cc

[Image via “Publication is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives.” The Missouri Review. Volume 23, Number 3, 2000, pp. 83-86. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/missouri_review/summary/v023/23.3.article.html. Used with permission.]

Rejected: The Bell Jar, a novel by Sylvia Plath

The Knopf editor “jbj” knows all too well what difference a name drop can make; Plath originally submitted her novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, whose work received the original, terse in-house review printed below. When it was revealed that Victoria Lucas was in fact Sylvia Plath, an embarrassed jbj took a greater interest in the work, although he ultimately still rejected it. Plath’s only novel eventually became an American classic and staple of every high school curriculum, but before that, the rest of the Knopf staff seem to have agreed with jbj — unpublishable.

jbj’s reviews read:

[1] Reject recommended I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice. jbj [2] I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly—“The Bell Jar” with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel. The trouble is that she has not succeeded in using her material in a novelistic way; there is no viewpoint, no sifting out o the experiences of being a Mademoiselle contest winner with the month in New York, the subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempts, the brash loss of virginity at the end. One feels simply that Miss Plat is writing of them because [these] things did happen to her and the incidents are in themselves good for a story, but throw them together and they don’t necessarily add up to a novel. One never feels, for instance, the deep-rooted anguish that would drive this girl to suicide. It is too bad because Miss Play has a way with words and a sharp eye or unusual and vivid detail. But maybe now that this book is out of her system she will use her talent more effectively next time. I doubt if anyone over here will pick this novel up, so we might well have a second chance. jbj

A second Knopf reader, Patrick Gregory, though, was not as starstruck by the revelation of Plath’s true identity as jbj was, though, adding to the review:

RECOMMEND REJECTION This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work. P.G. 3/29/63

[via Letters of Note]

Rejected: Hunter S. Thompson’s biography, by William McKeen

Unconventional as far as rejection letters go, this one was penned post-publication, but given Hunter Thompson’s colorful language in the personal rejection note he sent to his biographer William McKeen in 1991, we deemed it worthy of inclusion anyway. With no further ado, the scribbled note, now framed in McKeen’s home, reads:

— McKeen, you shit-eating freak. I warned you not to write that vicious trash about me — Now you better get fitted for a black eyepatch in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum. HST

Rejected: The Giant Zlig, an illustrated book by Tim Burton

A ripe, 18-year-old Burton, still in high school, submitted his illustrated children’s book to Walt Disney Productions for consideration. That was 1976, and T. Jeanette Kroger, author of his rejection letter, didn’t see in The Giant Zlig what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, BAFTA, Cannes, and, it’s fair to say, the majority of humanity saw in him in later years. Kroger thanked Burton for his mail and made no mention of the possibility of publication but did give the artist some tips.

They read:

Dear Tim: Here are some brief impressions of your book, The Giant Zlig. STORY: The story is simple enough for a young audience (age 4-6), cute, and shows a grasp of the language much better than I would expect from one of today’s high school students, despite occasional lapses in grammar and spelling. It may, however, be too derivative of the Seuss works to be marketable–I just don’t know. But I definitely enjoyed reading it. ART: Considering that you suffer from a lack of the proper tools and materials, the art is very good. The characters are charming and imaginative, and have sufficient variety to sustain interest. Your layout is also good–it shows good variety in point-of-view. Consequently, I not only enjoyed reading about the Giant Zlig, but I got a chuckle watching him, too. I hope my comments please you. Thanks for the opportunity to read The Giant Zlig; keep up the good work, and good luck. Very truly yours, T. Jeanette Kroger Editor Walt Disney Productions

Rejected: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

Now heralded as the beat bible, Jack Kerouac’s magnum opus On the Road was finally published by Viking Press in 1957, six years after it was written. But in 1951, given its provocative content and untraditional style, publishing houses wouldn’t touch it. Knopf was just one of many whose editors reviewed the manuscript harshly and reported it as untouchable to their editors. In 2007, NPR interviewed Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, where the Knopf archives are stored, and he shared a bit of On the Road‘s bleak review. Listen to it here, where Oram reads out part of a Mr. Parks’ review:

“…this is a badly misdirected talent and … this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.”

Followed by the even nastier, pithy review of another editor:

“I don’t dig this one at all.”

[Image via “Publication is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives.” The Missouri Review. Volume 23, Number 3, 2000, pp. 83-86. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/missouri_review/summary/v023/23.3.article.html. Used with permission.]

Rejected: “The Estate (?) (The Healer of All Flesh??),” a partial manuscript by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Singer’s manuscript, titled in its Knopf rejection slip as written above, The Estate (?) (The Healer of All Flesh??), later went on to become two of his novels, The Estate and The Manor, and Singer himself went on to become one of the foremost Yiddish writers of his time and win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. His stories really aren’t as bad as Knopf editor Herbert Weinstock would have you think.

He writes:

This is a partial rough translation of the same novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer which I saw in January 1055. It’s Poland and the rich Jews again. With endless editorial work and endless serpentine dealings with Moshe Spiegel, the willing translator-adapter, this might be turned into an English novel nearly as good and nearly as salable as The Family Moskat. I honestly do not think it worth Knopf’s time and effort, though I do think that Spiegel will persist until he gets someone to publish. Personally, I’d reject. H.W. 4/9/59