Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Look at Famous Rejections

When I was a working poet many years ago, seeking publication, I was rejected by some of the best magazines and presses around. Rejection is a big part of being a writer, and learning how to handle it without getting discouraged is an even bigger part of the vocation. Even the best book and writers get rejected.

An article in the NYT Book Review today takes a look at the rejection files of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., one of the most prestigious presses in the country.

For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The 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”), Ana├»s 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”).

Among the other rejections cited are The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank; Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth; and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It's good to know that some of the best writers and books have been rejected by the best presses.

However, what the article is really looking at is the process by which books are read and evaluated. For anyone seeking publication, this is useful information.


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