When you’re an aspiring writer trying to get your first manuscript published, the last piece of advice you want to hear is, “Don’t worry, you just have to pay your dues like everyone else.” But the truth is, most people don’t get published right away, no matter how talented they are. The success of your application can often seem to be entirely at the whim of a faceless, uncaring editor, dependent on everything from their personal literary preferences to whether or not they had enough coffee that morning. But don’t give up! It’s really not a cliché to say that an easy path to publication is the exception and not the norm.
In case you do need a little pick-me-up and a healthy reminder that even the most talented authors hit a few roadblocks on the way to success, we’ve found four rejection letters that have likely left the offending editors eating their words for the rest of their careers.
1) Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls”
One of the bestselling books of all time (currently ranked fifteenth for fiction, thirty-third for all genres) is also the recipient of one of the harshest rejection letters ever. Though he eventually edited Susann’s story into a publication-ready final copy, editor Don Preston had this to say about her initial manuscript:
She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes that would not make the pages of True Confessions, hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly…. most of the first 200 pages are virtually worthless and dreadfully dull and practically every scene is dragged out flat and stomped on by her endless talk… I really don’t think there is a page of this manuscript that can stand in its present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity.
2) J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”
The name Holden Caulfield is as recognisable as, if not more so than, the name of the man who created him, yet J.D. Salinger had The Catcher in the Rye rejected due to an apparently under-developed main character. This claim that a character who is now regarded as one of literature’s most distinctive would be unknowable to a reader has us calling “phony” on that editor’s criticism.
3) Gertrude Stein’s prose style
There’s no denying that Gertrude Stein’s distinctive style is a little on the verbose side. However, publisher Arthur Fifield offered such lampooning criticism of one manuscript she submitted that it’s a wonder she ever picked up a pen again.
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.
4) George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”
Writing punishing political satire is always risky business, so it’s no surprise that George Orwell had some trouble finding a publisher for his anti-Soviet novel Animal Farm. However, one publisher so greatly missed the point of the allegorical narrative that he actually suggested ways to better suit the book to its (apparent) target audience of “dictatorships at large.”
If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators [Lenin and Stalin], that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.
Fortunately, this is George Orwell we’re talking about here, and he stuck to his guns and found a publisher who would print his dystopic novel, cementing his place as one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers.
While it’s not always easy to look on the bright side when facing seemingly constant rejection, there is truly not one writer who has never received criticism of his or her work. The above authors were the recipients of some truly brutal feedback but still survived to write another day, and so will you.
What’s the most valuable piece of constructive criticism you’ve ever received? What did you learn from your harshest rejection letter? Share your stories in the comments below!
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