On this day (February 9) in 1926, Hemingway ended his contract with his first publisher, Boni and Liveright, who rejected his novella The Torrents of Spring. The company claimed: “It would be in extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
It’s hard to imagine Papa ever facing rejection — in fact, some have even argued that Hemingway wrote the novella to break his contract with Boni and Liveright, thereby becoming free to sign one with Scribner. (Biographers beg to differ; they call it an honest rejection.) Scribner did proudly accept Torrents and also published The Sun Also Rises that same year. Hemingway went on to enjoy a long relationship with the house and his editor Maxwell Perkins. If anything, his rejection from Boni and Liveright was proof that sometimes rejection leads people to bigger and better things.
In the moment, rejection is tough. People can say rotten things and sometimes spirits are broken, but you can always take solace in knowing that you’re in good company. These are nine more celebrated writers who received their fair share of insults:
1. Alice Munro: “Easily Overlooked,” “Quickly Forgotten,” “Hopelessly Unsaleable” (Knopf)
Munro was rejected from Knopf on more than one occasion before she got her start. Her first story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was dismissed for being “nothing particularly new or exciting” by editor Judith Jones. But Jones didn’t stop there: She called the work “easily overlooked” and “quickly forgotten.” Still, Munro kept at it and submitted her first novel, Lives of Girls and Women to Knopf two years later. Editor Judith Jones had another look at Munro’s work and argued the novel “[wasn’t] much of a literary gem” and was “hopelessly unsaleable.” She even rejected Munro on the basis that she was “primarily a short story writer.” To be fair, Munro did go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature as “master of the contemporary short story.”
2. Kurt Vonnegut: “Not Quite Compelling Enough” (The Atlantic)
Twenty years before the publication of Slaughterhouse Five (a novel that took Vonnegut 23 years to write and publish), the author submitted three samples of his work to The Atlantic Monthly — one of which was an account of the firebombing in Dresden, which Slaughterhouse is famed for recounting. The rejection letter declares Vonnegut’s pieces as part of the “usual summer house-cleaning” of the manuscript slush pile and turns down his pieces because they are “not quite compelling enough.” Today, the letter is hung proudly in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis.
3. Gertrude Stein: “Hardly One Copy Would Sell” (Arthur C. Fifield)
Despite being one of Stein’s most widely taught novels today, Three Lives was practically impossible to get published at the time it was written. Publishers hated it and even sent mocking rejection letters, like this one:
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.
Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.
A. C. Fifield
Even after Stein decided to turn to a vanity publisher (the early 20th century equivalent of self-publishing), she could only afford to print 500 copies, many of which she sent to publishers with the hope that it could become a commercial success. Still, it wasn’t well received. It faced rejections from H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. In 1933, a little more than 20 years later, the celebrity of Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” afforded her wider readership and critical acclaim. Today, Three Lives is known as one of Stein’s most approachable works.
4. George Orwell: “Stupid and Pointless” (Knopf)
Knopf rejected Animal Farm in 1945 for being a “stupid and pointless fable in which the animals take over a farm and run it.” They also called the novella “boring and obvious” and “damn dull.” At the time, Animal Farm had already been published by Secker & Warburg, an English publishing company, but had met its fair share of opposition from publishers across the pond as well: British publisher Jonathan Cape had initially accepted the book, then rejected it for being “offensive” and having the audacity to feature pigs as the dominant class — after the British Ministry of Information had a few words with him. If anything, the rejections Orwell received feel like a few cheap shots taken by people who were personally offended by the book’s message. Now, after 50 years of being in print, the classic has been translated in 70 different languages and sold millions of copies.
5. Vladimir Nabokov: “Overwhelmingly Nauseating”
Nabokov’s controversial classic, Lolita, was turned down by countless publishers before it was accepted by Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press. It was turned down by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar Straus and Doubleday — all for being too racy. One unidentified publisher is said to have called it “overwhelming nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian” and recommended the “revolting” book be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Clearly, some people just don’t have the stomach (or dark sense of humor) needed in loving the timeless classic.
6. Sylvia Plath: “Certainly Isn’t Enough Genuine Talent” (Knopf)
The Bell Jar was rejected by Knopf twice. On a first read, the editor noted it had a “youthful American female brashness” and that there wasn’t enough talent for them to take notice. Upon recognizing Plath’s name and reputation, the editor gave the manuscript a second read, and complimented it, in a backhanded way, for being “obviously flagrantly autobiographical.” Despite this small peak of interest, the editor went off preaching that interesting life happenings don’t always add up to a novel, explaining: “One never feels, for instance, the deep-rooted anguish that would drive this girl to suicide.” Many rejections are brutal, but this one is by far the most heartless.
7. Jorge Luis Borges: “Utterly Untranslatable” (Knopf)
Borges is a master of labyrinthic stories, ones that challenge and excite readers. Today, his work plays an essential role in Latin American literature alongside the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But before Borges became an admired, academic-worthy standard, he had his rough beginnings. His early work, El Aleph faced rejection from Knopf editors who clearly didn’t understand his work, asking: “are they stories, most of them?” and deeming them “utterly untranslatable.” Sure, his work challenges the imagination, but untranslatable? The book didn’t appear in English until 1970, when Dutton released The Aleph and Other Stories, which became one of Borges’s most well-known works.
8. Jacqueline Susann: “Painfully Dull, Inept, Clumsy, Undisciplined” (Bernard Geis Associates)
Valley of the Dolls was an immediate commercial success following its publication, selling approximately 30 million copies, but it faced some pretty harsh rejection from publishers before making it on the market. Even Susann’s first editor, Don Preston at Bernard Geis Associates, wrote a scathing report of her first manuscript, saying that it “hauls out every terrible show biz cliché” and that the “first 200 pages are virtually worthless and dreadfully dull.” Thankfully, the manuscript was accepted and endured the editing process to become a classic.
9. Jack Kerouac: “Badly Misdirected Talent” (Knopf)
Today, On the Road is an essential work of the Beat Generation. Fans of Kerouac love its rhythm and impulsivity, but back when the author was trying to get his book out there, it was rejected by Knopf. An editor wrote that “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,” with another adding, “I don’t dig this one at all.” After roughly six years of Kerouac seeking a publisher for On the Road, Viking finally picked it up. It is now read, taught and appreciated widely.
In 2012, The New Yorker published three parody rejection letters that included one by David Rakoff for On the Road, which possibly riffed off of the Knopf rejections that had surfaced: “To begin, a word of congratulations. Yours is the first and only manuscript written on one continuous scroll that we’ve ever received in this office.” All of the parody letters are hilarious, and they teach artists not to take rejection to heart because, in time, those scathing rejections might be the biggest jokes of all.
If there’s anything that the cases above demonstrate, it’s that sometimes, years later, it’s more embarrassing to be the rejecter than the rejectee. It’s also a lesson to all editors to turn writers away kindly and encourage them to keep trying — and to keep all ruthless readers reports confidential.