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Even the greatest writers suffered rejection letters, but you won’t have to.

November 30, 2011

Was Jack Kerouac wounded by rejection?

Today we’re going to examine two artifacts of literary culture soon to be extinct: Rejection letters, specifically those received by famous authors, and private libraries, also belonging to famous authors.

Really, were the times veering elsewhere — were literary culture not crumbling before my very eyes –I would offer the 1968 rejection of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which you can find at Flavorwire,  as an encouragement to aspiring writers:

“The whole is so dry and airless,” writes a particularly obtuse editor, “so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, extraneous material.”

The Left Hand of Darkness went on to win the 1969 Nebula Award, the 1970 Hugo, and Le Guin herself is known today as one of the all-time greatest sci-fi writers.

These letters, reproduced in their original form, are valuable not only for what they tell us about the importance of persistence in the face of rejection. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into a literary world of just the day before yesterday that has all but utterly vanished.

For example, after writing to a Nabokov representative to reject Lolita in 1956 (“which you and I both know is impossible at least for us”), Blanche Knopf goes on to discuss other business:

“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.”

I cannot suss out who “Renee” and “the Coco” might be (a dog, perhaps?), or what the “affair” refers to (please, something nice and lurid!), but I’d love to know. If someone with more knowledge of ’50s era publishing can fill in the blanks, we’d all be grateful.

Lolita, of course, was published by Putnam in the United States in 1958, eventually selling 50 million copies (and counting) and becoming a consensus pick as one of the best novels of the century.

Other famous writers summarily rejected include Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter Matthiessen, and the film director Tim Burton.

Not all the letters strike me as harsh: “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,” Edward Weeks writes to Vonnegut.

Nor do I find all of the rejections unjust. At the risk of being judged a philistine, I find myself in sympathy with the Knopf editor who termed  On the Road “this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel [that] would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.”

Of course, it’s a beat masterpiece and all that, but when I tried to read it for the first time a mere three or four years ago, my initial enthusiasm wore down to nothing about half way through, when I began to suspect that the story amounted to nothing more than one damned thing after another.

By far the best rejection is of an early Gertrude Stein manuscript, spurned by publisher Arthur Fifield in a letter that spoofs Stein’s own. Dear Madam, he writes:

“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.”

Rejections of this — or any — type will soon become rarer and rarer until they cease to exist. Digital self-publishing makes it so easy for any writer to get any manuscript, no matter how awful, into publication — why would a writer subject himself or herself to the pains of rejection?

Thanks to the Kindle and the iPad and their innumerable imitators, personal libraries will also go the way of the dodo. I’ve so far held out, though more and more of my serious reader friends — and even writers — are succumbing to the siren call of the electronic book reading device thingy.

So let us bask vicariously in the glory of libraries maintained by famous writers, also from Flavorwire, ranging from Norman Mailer to Junot Diaz, Mark Twain to Agatha Christie, Gary Shteyngart to John Updike, Toni Morrison to Rudyard Kipling — 20 in all. Take a look and pick a favorite. I like this one, with John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and their daughter, Quintana Roo:

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 2:15 pm

    I heard JK Rowling was rejected 27 times. Go figure how those folks are doing in their respective fields today. Why did so many not see what some one finally did ?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 30, 2011 6:04 pm

      Hindsight’s 20-20. It’s not a science, thank God.

  2. November 30, 2011 11:51 pm

    I’m up to about 180 rejections for my kid’s book. I’m still sending it out!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2011 10:30 am

      That’s about right. Good for you. I think I can, I think I can!

  3. December 1, 2011 10:48 am

    Every writer gets rejected. Goes with the territory. First you get rejected by agents (“I am not taking on any new clients at this time”), then editors (“this does not meet our needs at this time”), then bookstore buyers (“his last book tanked so we’re cutting our orders for this author”), then reviewers (“he’s phoned this one in.”) then book buyers (who pick up your book, read the back copy and put it back on the shelf.)

    Even if you self-publish with Amazon you’re going to get rejected (non-sales, even at 99 cents, can sting.)

    Kathryn Stockett (sp?) got rejected by 60 agents before one picked her up. I think her book “The Help” ended up doing okay last I heard.

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