1. Peter Matthiessen’s Signs of Winter
Peter Matthiessen founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton, a title he later revealed as being a cover for his role as a CIA agent. Regardless, he still pursued a career in writing and, after submitting his novel Signs of Winter to the Brandt & Brandt literary agency, he received this rejection letter from a Fox (JMF) and Vandrin (PV).
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.
I concur. PV 3/16/53
2. Gertrude Stein’s manuscript
In 1912, Gertrude Stein received this rejection letter from publisher Arthur Fifield after sending in a manuscript.
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.”
3. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
Despite being published by Viking Press in 1957, On the Road was still rejected in the years prior. Below is an excerpt of a rejection letter sent to Kerouac from the editors at Knopf.
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.
I don’t dig this one at all.
4. Tim Burton’s The Giant Zlig
Years before he became the renowned artist we all know him to be today, Tim Burton, in 1976 and at only 18-years-old, submitted an illustrated children’s book entitled The Giant Zlig to Walt Disney Productions. T. Jeanette Kroger rejected this book in the letter below.
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
Walt Disney Productions
5. William McKeen’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson
William McKeen’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson was already published when he received this scathing letter from Mr. Thompson himself.
— 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.
6. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s the Estate and The Manor
Before Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Estate and The Manor were published, these two books were part of one manuscript, which Singer sent into Knopf for review, and which Knopf rejected. Singer went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
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.
7. Kurt Vonnegut’s three writing samples
In 1949, Kurt Vonnegut sent The Atlantic Monthly three samples of work, all of which were rejected from editor Edward Weeks. Joke’s kind of on them, because now the letter hangs, framed in Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis.
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.
8. George Orwell’s Animal Farm
Sure, Animal Farm went on to sell 20 million copies, but before it was published, Faber & Faber’s erstwhile editor, Mr. T.S. Eliot, rejected it.
13 July 1944
I know that you wanted a quick decision about Animal Farm: but minimum is two directors’ opinions, and that can’t be done under a week. But for the importance of speed, I should have asked the Chairman to look at it as well. But the other director is in agreement with me on the main points. We agree that it is a distinguished piece of writing; that the fable is very skilfully handled, and that the narrative keeps one’s interest on its own plane—and that is something very few authors have achieved since Gulliver.
On the other hand, we have no conviction (and I am sure none of other directors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time. It is certainly the duty of any publishing firm which pretends to other interests and motives than mere commercial prosperity, to publish books which go against current of the moment: but in each instance that demands that at least one member of the firm should have the conviction that this is the thing that needs saying at the moment. I can’t see any reason of prudence or caution to prevent anybody from publishing this book—if he believed in what it stands for.
Now I think my own dissatisfaction with this apologue is that the effect is simply one of negation. It ought to excite some sympathy with what the author wants, as well as sympathy with his objections to something: and the positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing. I think you split your vote, without getting any compensating stronger adhesion from either party—i.e. those who criticise Russian tendencies from the point of view of a purer communism, and those who, from a very different point of view, are alarmed about the future of small nations. And after all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed, (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
I am very sorry, because whoever publishes this, will naturally have the opportunity of publishing your future work: and I have a regard for your work, because it is good writing of fundamental integrity.
Miss Sheldon will be sending you the script under separate cover.
T. S. Eliot
9. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Though it was published in Paris only a year prior, in 1956 Mrs. Blanche Knopf, in the letter below, deemed Lolita too controversial to be published in America.
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.
Mrs. W.A. Bradley
18 Quai de Bethune
Paris 4, FRANCE
10. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar
In the first letter below, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was immediately rejected by Knopf editor “jbj”. Plath sent it in under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and when “jbj” found out the identity of the real author, his interest in the book was apparently revived (second letter), only to be rejected again.
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.
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.
11. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
Below, a rejection letter from an offended Mrs Moberley Luger.
75 Wiley Street
New York, N.Y.
June 14th, 1925.
Dear Mr. Hemingway:
Thank you for sending us your manuscript, The Sun Also Rises. I regret to inform you that we will not be offering you publication at this time.
If I may be frank, Mr. Hemingway — you certainly are in your prose — I found
your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other. Your bombastic, dipsomaniac, where-to-now characters had me reaching for my own glass of brandy — something to liven up 250 pages of men who are constantly stopping to sleep off the drink. What Peacock & Peacock is looking for, in a manuscript, is innovation and heart. I’m afraid that what you have produced here does not fit that description.
A great story, Mr. Hemingway, is built on a foundation of great characters. I had trouble telling yours apart. Remind me, which is the broken-hearted bachelor who travels aimlessly across Europe? Ah, yes! They all do! As I understand it, Jake Barnes is intended to be your hero. A hero, Mr. Hemingway, is a person the reader can care about, root for. Jake Barnes is too detached, too ineffective; I doubt he’d have the energy to turn the page and find out what happened to himself. I take exception, also, to your portrayal of Mike. There is nothing less appealing than a character who sits blithely by while his wife sleeps with half of the continent. I have not yet said anything about Brett, your only prominent female character. As a woman, was I intended to identify with this flighty girl who takes in men the way the others take in after-supper coffees? Let me tell you, Mr. Hemingway, I did not. Your languid characters deserve each other, really each one is more hollow than the next.
Of course, I doubt it’s possible to create a three-dimensional character with such two-dimensional language. Have you never heard of crafted prose? Style? Complexity of diction? It’s hard to believe an entire novel’s worth of pages could be filled up with the sort of short, stunted sentences you employ here. Let me be specific: at the start of the novel, you sum up a key character, Robert Cohn, with just five short words, “I was his tennis friend.” This tells us nothing. Later, when Jake is looking out on the Seine — the beautiful, historic, poetic Sein — you write, “the river looked nice.” Nice? The river looked nice? I dare say my young son could do better!
In short, your efforts have saddened me, Mr. Hemingway. I was hopeful that by 1925, the brutes would have stopped sending me their offerings. We at Peacock & Peacock, are looking to publish novels that will inspire. God knows, it’s what people need at this time. Certainly, what is not needed are treatises about bullfights and underemployed men who drink too much.
Mrs Moberley Luger
12. William Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust
Below is an excerpt of Horace Liveright’s rejection letter of Flags in the Dust, after Faulkner sent the manuscript in to Boni and Liveright.
My chief objection is that you don’t seem to have any story to tell and I contend that a novel should tell a story and tell it well.
13. Andy Warhol’s “Shoe”
Well, this is funny. In 1956, New York’s Museum of Modern Art sent this letter to Andy Warhol, rejecting the drawing “Shoe” which the artist offered as a gift. The letter, excerpted below, was written by Alfred H. Barr Jr.
I regret that I must report to you that the Committee decided, after careful consideration, that they ought not to accept it for our Collection…
Let me explain that because of our severely limited gallery and storage space we must turn down many gifts offered, since we feel it is not fair to accept as a gift a work which may be shown only infrequently…
P.S. The drawing may be picked up from the Museum at your convenience.
14. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
A staple in the literary canon, Moby Dick was initially rejected by Peter J. Bentley, editor at british publishing house Betley & Son Publishing House.
My Dear Sir,
We have read with great interest your intriguing effort of Moby Dick, or The Whale, and while it fortified us greatly, despite the somewhat vision-impairing length of the manuscript, we were wondering if changing certain of the story’s elements might not buoy its purchases at the shop, as it were?
First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?
While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens? We are sure that your most genial friend and fine author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, would be instructive in this matter? Mr. Hawthorne has much experience introducing a delicate bosom heaving with burning secrets into popular literature.
I’m afraid that while we can appreciate the heartiness with which Captain Ahab pursues his passion for fishing, we would find it estimably helpful on your behalf to leave out his personal belief system. Let us not identify one faith over another, in such sense, that were it to prove an offense to our readers, this would most certainly thin shillings from our purse. If this development affects your character’s motivation disagreeably, then would it not suffice to make him a Lutheran? Everyone knows that Lutherans always have a “bee in their bonnet” anyway and there are not quite so many of them in London.
Bentley & Son appeals to your more libertine nature and requests that (for heaven’s sake, we are trying to sell books here) you discard the employment of ‘thou” and “thee” as it will put the reader too much in mind of the Vicar’s sermon on Sunday, and thus, ruin a good Saturday night read as being just “too much of a good thing”.
All in all we were quite delighted with your previous efforts, Typeeand Omoo. They were just the thing, what with the cannibalism and native non-state of dress and all. We remain hopeful for more of the same.
Yours in commercial endeavors,
Peter J. Bentley
Bentley & Son Publishing House
New Burlington St.