“Perhaps We’re Being Dense.” Rejection Letters Sent to Famous Writers
Some Kind, Some Weird, Some Unbelievably Harsh
Here at Literary Hub, we’re big fans of rejection. And why not? Everybody gets rejected at some point, including young, aspiring short story writers who go on to win Nobel Prizes in literature. So here, I’ve collected a few of my favorite writer rejections—for the most part, I’ve stuck to more substantial ones, as opposed to the one-liners you see frequently repeated around the internet, unsourced except for by the power of consensus. There are also a lot—a lot—of fake literary rejection letters out there. Some are obvious; others are a little more skillful. I’ve tried my best to use only those I could confirm. The letters below range from the polite and apologetic to the cruel and mocking—rejection being an art, it seems, in its own right. Read on, and take heart.
From Howard Moss at The New Yorker to Sylvia Plath:
November 7, 1962
Dear Miss Plath,
I’m sorry we decided against these poems. We like the second section of AMNESIAC very much, but cannot see any relation between it and the first section. Perhaps we’re being dense. But would you think over the possibility of printing the second section alone under that title? If you would care to resubmit it that way, we’d be happy to consider it again.
Thank you for sending these poems to us, and we hope to see others.
I’d say that this is about as good a rejection as a writer can hope to get—perhaps not surprising, as it’s Plath. See the original here.
From an unnamed publisher to Robert Galbraith, who is actually J. K. Rowling, upon submission of The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Dear Robert Galbraith,
Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to consider with interest. However, I regret that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we could not publish it with commercial success.
At the risk of “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs,” may I respectfully suggest the following:
Double check in a helpful bookshop, on Amazon or in the twice yearly “Buyer’s Guide” of the Bookseller magazine (order via newsagents, or available in your local reference library) precisely who are the publishers now of your fiction category/genre.
Call the publishers to obtain the name of the relevant editor; it is rarely productive to speak to her/him in person. Nowadays it is perfectly acceptable to approach numerous publishers at once and even several imprints within the same group (imprints tend to be compartmentalized).
Then send to each editor an alluring 200-word blurb (as on book jackets; don’t give away the ending!), the first chapter plus perhaps two others, and and S.A.E. The covering letter should state as precisely as you can the category/genre of fiction you are submitting—city successful authors in you genre, especially those published by the particular imprint you are contacting. Again a helpful bookshop may be able to advise you.
Much vital information can be found in The Writer’s Handbook and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, but remember that details of an imprint’s publishing policy may be out of date, and acquiring a literary agent is even harder than finding a publisher! Owing to pressure of submissions, I regret we cannot reply individually or provide constructive criticism. (A writer’s group/writing course may help with the latter.) May I wish you every success in placing your work elsewhere.
This is a perfectly polite and even helpful form letter—if you’re a noob. But considering its recipient was actually J.K. Rowling, it all comes off a bit condescending . . . See the original letter and another, snippier rejection on Rowling’s Twitter.
Knopf editor Judith Jones on Alice Munro’s debut collection Dance of the Happy Shades:
I quite love these stories. They are full of agonizing moments of growing, of girlish insecurities and yearnings, of daily living and struggling in the midst of the depression which has always seemed so much more depressing in Canada. And yet they’re not really grim because Miss Munro writes well and catches the life spark in her people. However as a collection I suppose there is nothing particularly new and exciting here and it could be so easily overlooked, or sampled quickly and forgotten. And Alice Munro is not that young. I suspect, too, that her forte is the story; she doesn’t seem to have the larger reach of the novelist. Added to all these minor strikes is the fact that we have Margaret Laurence and will be doing a book of stories by her that reflect the same background and period. So perhaps someone else should do this; I hope so because I would like to see it published.
To be fair, this wasn’t sent to Munro—it was an in-house rejection sheet at Knopf. And to be fair, it’s lovely and kind and shows a keen eye on Jones’s part—Munro’s forte is the story. But she has certainly not been ignored. See the original text of this, and of Jones’s 1971 rejection of Munro’s novel, Lives of Girls and Women, here.
From T.S. Eliot, then editorial director at Faber & Faber, to George Orwell, upon receipt of Animal Farm.
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
Which is rather more thoughtful and even-handed than the more famous rejection of Animal Farm, in which an editor at Dial Press wrote that it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” See the original typescript at Open Culture.
From The Saturday Evening Post to Jack London:
We have found the “Sunlanders” a story of exceptional interest, and we should wish to give it a place in our columns were it not for our policy to exclude the tragic from the magazine. We thank you cordially for giving us an opportunity to examine this manuscript, and hope that you have in hand some tales of a more cheerful nature.
This was Jack London’s first rejection slip—of many, according to Jack Edward Shay in Arcane America. You can read the story in question here.
From Donald A. Wollheim at Ace Books to Stephen King, upon receipt of Carrie:
We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.
(Turns out they do.)
From an unnamed editor to Ursula K. Le Guin’s agent, Virginia Kidd, upon receipt of The Left Hand of Darkness:
Dear Miss Kidd,
Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, 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, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith. Yours sincerely,
21 June, 1968
This unreadable novel was published in 1969 by Ace Books, launching Le Guin to fame, and winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Many years later, Le Guin posted this rejection on her website with a note to aspiring writers: Hang in there!
From Maxime du Camp to Gustave Flaubert after showing of Madame Bovary to the managing editor of the Revue de Paris:
Laurent-Pichat has read your novel and I enclose his remarks about it. As you will realize then you read them, I agree with them absolutely, for they are almost the very observations that I made before you left Paris. I sent the book on to Laurent with no comment except a warm recommendation—it is not by collusion that we think so nearly alike. The advice he gives you is good—the only advice, in fact, that you should follow. Let us take full charge of the publication of your novel in the Revue; we will make the cuts that we think are indispensable; and later you can superintend the book publication yourself, restoring anything you choose. My private opinion is that if you do not do this you will be compromising you entire career and making your first appearance with a work which is confused and muddled and to which the style alone does not give sufficient interest. Be brave, close your eyes during the operation, and have confidence—if not in our talent, at least in the experience which we have acquired in such things and also in our affection for you. You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous; they hide the essentials, and must be removed—an easy task. We shall have it done under our supervision by someone who is experienced and clever; not a word will be added to your manuscript, it will merely be cut down; the job will cost you about a hundred francs, which will be deducted from your cheque, and you will have published something really good, instead of something imperfect and padded. You are doubtless cursing me with all your might at this very moment, but you may be sure that in all this I have only your own interest at heart.
This isn’t exactly a rejection—it’s a request for edits—but it enraged Flaubert, who, according to Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, scrawled “Gigantesque!” on the back of the letter and sent “off another post-haste to Max, to say that if the Revue did not want Madame Bovary as it was written it was quite free not to take it at all.” The editors ultimately agreed, though they demanded that a single passage be omitted—no doubt re-inserted by Flaubert when his masterpiece was published in book form.
From editor Marc Humblot, to Marcel Proust, 1912, upon receipt of Swann’s Way:
My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed. I clutched my head.
The above is the famous and oft-repeated bit, translator unknown; I can’t find the whole letter. However, in The Quest for Proust, André Maurois has reported Proust’s return fire:
I find Monsieur Humblot’s letter (which I return herewith) completely idiotic. What I have tried to do is to create about my first chapter (and I suppose it is the first chapter he means, because, frankly, I entirely fail to recognise myself in what he writes) an atmosphere of semi-wake-fulness, the point of which does not emerge until later, but which I have elaborated as far as my very mediocre gifts of penetration permit. The significance, as should be obvious, is not that I want to describe how I twist and turn in bed—which I could certainly do in much fewer pages—but that the twisting and turning provides me with a means of analysis. Fasquelle, I know, doesn’t agree with him, because, in [his earlier rejection] letter—whose destruction I shall never cease to regret—he said: “What a pity that you didn’t make a whole volume out of that one chapter which you devote to describing a sickly childhood, and which is so infinitely curious and remarkable!” The part, of course, which contains the indecencies moves, I know, much more rapidly, but doubtless Monsieur Humblot never got as far as that. I am afraid that a great many readers may agree with him. But have people like that never bothered to read—well, Barres, for instance ? I very much doubt it: or Maeterlinck? If one sent Monsier Humblot to La Colline inspirée of the one, or to La Mort of the other, being careful to suppress the author’s name in each case, I feel that he would “whittle them down” to such an extent that very little would remain, and that he really would have to clutch his head.
From publisher Arthur C. Fifield to Gertrude Stein, upon receipt of The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress:
April 19, 1912.
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
Despite this quite harsh, mocking rejection (can you imagine this being sent today?), The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress was eventually published in France in 1925, by Contact Editions, and in the US in 1926, by Albert & Charles Boni. See a scan of the original at Letters of Note.
From Harold Pinter to Tom Stoppard:
05 November 2001
Thank you for your invitation to host a fundraising dinner in the private room of a top London restaurant.
I would rather die.
All the best,
This is not a literary rejection, per se, but it’s pretty much everyone’s dream response to an annoying event, and since it does concern two writers, I’m including it. You’re welcome. See a scan of the original here.
From publisher Angus & Robertson to a Mr. F. C. Meyer of Katoomba, Australia:
No, you may not send us your verses, and we will not give you the name of another publisher. We hate no rival publisher sufficiently to ask you to inflict them on him. The specimen poem is simply awful. In fact, we have never seen worse.
Angus & Robertson Ltd.
Mr. F. C. Meyer is not a famous writer (though he did eventually publish!), so this letter does not meet the criteria for the post. But this is a very bad rejection, nonetheless, and I thought perhaps you would like to shiver at it along with me. See the original letter here.