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Good God, I can’t publish this…

The ancient art of the literary rejection

The literary rejection is almost a genre in itself. It has shaken the confidence of every writer in history. The best examples are to be found wherever there is a publisher armed with a power complex, a sense of literary inferiority and a ready wit. In recent years, the soft thud of the manuscript on the hall floor has been gradually replaced by the pernicious ping of the inbox. It does seem that the email is a paler version of the quintessential letter of the past.

Back in the 60s, Sylvia Plath boldly claimed, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try”. This was in spite of being told by a publisher that she didn’t have “enough genuine talent for us to take notice”.

Stephen King kept his rejection letters on a spike while Hemingway mutilated his — and no wonder. Mrs Moberley Luger of Peacock & Peacock (surely a parody of a publisher if ever there was one) sent Hemingway an intensely personal missive on the shortcomings of The Sun Also Rises: “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.” She went on to berate his writing style with “I daresay my young son could do better!” and of the novel’s hero she unleashed this zinger, “I doubt he’d have the energy to turn the page to find out what happened to himself”.

Another rip-roaring rejection arrived a year later through the letterbox of Virginia Woolf. After a lengthy demolition job on To The Lighthouse, David Balzer of Stanchion Press sought to assure her, “Do not, Mrs Woolf, confuse my objections with sex bias”. He snidely concluded, “Self-publication may be your best hope. If your own milieu is anything like that of your novel, I trust you will have little trouble making connections or garnering finances”.

Publishers are worse than Nostradamus for predicting the future

On the subject of sex bias, perhaps the most hilarious of all was Bentley and Son’s rejection of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”

The primary reason why work is rejected is the quality of the writing. Rudyard Kipling was bluntly told by the editor of the San Francisco Examiner that he didn’t “know how to use the English language”. Another prime reason is subject matter. The obscenity of Nabokov’s Lolita provoked a publisher into this fulmination, deeming it “overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years”.

If a writer is to be rejected on grounds of style, it might as well be done stylishly. One publisher brilliantly mimicked Gertrude Stein’s experimental prose with “Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one”. The humour must have helped at least a little to cushion Stein’s disappointment.

Contemporary writers seem to have it easier than their predecessors. A notable exception is Stephen King who received a brutal response to Carrie that read, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell”. It appears that publishers are worse than Nostradamus for predicting the future. One prophesied to H.G. Wells that readers would say of The War of the Worlds, “Oh, don’t read that horrid book”. Literary appraisal may be highly subjective, but it’s still gratifying to see such wanton buffoonery laid bare.

Let’s leap forward to the twenty-first century where emails tend to be shorter than letters, meaning writers are mercifully spared the full-length howitzer of the Moberly Lugers of this world. I admit to having received a few corkers myself. Here’s one from a publisher of playscripts: It wasn’t very helpful (for you!) that it so happened I had just read a script… which was, frankly, very much more compelling [than yours]”.

Cowardly publishers have ushered in an era of focusing on the solipsistic self

Some publishers try to airbrush their rejection with a faux concern for the author’s welfare. My short story collection Marching Season earned this gem: “We think we’d be doing you a disservice in publishing this manuscript”, although it’s not quite as bad as the advice to D.H. Lawrence imploring him, “For your own sake do not publish this book”. The book in question was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. William Faulkner’s publisher went even further on reading Sanctuary, declaring, “Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail”. Hemingway (yet again!) ended his contract with his first publisher for claiming that “it would be in extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel” if he were to publish The Torrents of Spring.

In the past, certain books were repudiated on political grounds. One publisher turned down George Orwell’s Animal Farm, suggesting an amusing need for “more public-spirited pigs”. However, political sensitivities are on the increase — I had a recent rejection citing an “alarm bell” over cultural appropriation. It is maddening that writers nowadays are expected to write characters of the same age, race, gender, sexuality, background and physical ability as themselves. Unfortunately, cowardly publishers have ushered in an era of Sally Rooneyesque writers focusing on the solipsistic self. Experientialism has trumped imagination; the corollary is that there will be more email rejections than ever before.

While the blisteringly withering rejection may have lost some of its panache in the digital era, it’s by no means moribund. Rejections always hurt but writers should be proud to be worthy of a publisher’s vitriol. For us it’s all part of PTBW — prove the bastards wrong. And what could have been more thrilling for William Golding than to be told his future classic Lord of the Flies was “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull”? Ultimately, there is no line an author can write that will earn a bigger laugh than a ludicrous rejection of his or her greatest work.

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