History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 September 2010

Historical Rejections

As a writer, I've had my share of rejections, but like most of us, I keep pitching.

So here I am on a Friday night, waiting for my muse and surfing the net, procrastinating about writing those "next five pages", when I came across this list of rejection letters sent to some now very famous writers.

I take solace in these biting, and sometimes hilariously off-base critiques of pre-published classics. I'm glad these authors never gave up. I have enjoyed so many of their stories. To writers everywhere, take heart, I've posted some of monumentally incorrect rejections ever made public:

Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME was turned down 29 times.

And THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT was turned down so many times, Beatrix Potter initially self-published it. (She was soooo ahead of her time!)

"I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." Editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling.

Mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark recently received a $60 plus million dollar advance on her next five books, but this is what happened when she was sending out her manuscript "Journey Back to Love" in the early 1960s: "We found the heroine as boring as her husband did."

Classic writer Colette was told in a letter of rejection: "I wouldn't be able to sell 10 copies."

A rejection letter to Pierre Boulle about his "Bridge Over River Kwai" said, "A very bad book."

Jean Auel, author of "The Clan of Cave Bear" was told, "We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless ... we don't think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves."

"Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback." From the publisher of a magazine refusing an offer to bid on the paperback rights to Richard Bach's best selling novel. Avon Books eventually bought those rights and sales totaled more than 7.25 million copies.

H.G. Wells had to endure the indignity of a rejection when he submitted his manuscript, "The War of the Worlds" that said, "An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would "take"...I think the verdict would be 'Oh don't read that horrid book'."

And when he tried to market "The Time Machine," it was said, "It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader."

Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" received this response, "...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 ...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 ..."

When Irving Stone sent his manuscript, "Lust for Life," this is what came back in the mail: "A long, dull novel about an artist." I guess that meant "No thanks."

Before Ayn Rand became known as an intellectual and her books as classics, she had to get past this from one publisher: "It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic." And this from another: "I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn't. It won't sell." So much for "The Fountainhead." Fourteen years later she was sending "Atlas Shrugged" on its publishing rounds and reading in the return mail: "... the book is much too long. There are too many long speeches... I regret to say that the book is unsaleable and unpublishable."

To writer Samuel Johnson (though I don't know which book the editor was referring to): "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Regarding "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" it was written "(this book has) no future ..."

Did you know that only seven of Emily Dickinson's poems were ever published during her lifetime? A rejection early in her career said, "(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities."

Edgar Allen Poe was told, "Readers in this country have a decided and strong preference for works in which a single and connected story occupies the entire volume."

Herman Melville, who had written a manuscript entitled "Moby Dick," was told, "We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the Juvenile Market in (England). It is very long, rather old-fashioned..."

Jack London heard, "(Your book is) forbidding and depressing."

Ernest Hemingway, regarding his novel, "The Torrents of Spring" was rejected with, "It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it." Ouch!

William Faulkner may be a classic writer to this, as well as prior, generation, but back when he was trying to crack the publishing market, he had to read letters like this one, "If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don't think this would be of any use. My chief objection is that you don't have any story to tell." This was kinder than the rejection he would receive just two years later, "Good God, I can't publish this!"

According to the terrific little book, "Rotten Rejections" (Pushcart Press, Andre Bernarnd, 1990), "Auntie Mame" went through fifteen rejections over a period of five years before finding a home at Vanguard Press.

Crash by J G Ballard

‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.'

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

'This will set publishing back 25 years.'

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

'Do you realize, young woman, that you're the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.'

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

(which was rejected 16 times, but found a publisher and went on to sell about 25 million copies)

‘ A long, dull novel about an artist.’

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

'The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a lady" or "gentleman" amongst them.'

Carrie by Stephen King

'We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.'

Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller

‘I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.’

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

‘You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell

‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde

‘My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.’

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

‘... overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.

The list makes me smile.I found it at http://susiesmith13.tripod.com/id12.html.

I know the list is far from complete, but I had to post. Do you have more to add? Anyone have quotes from rejection letters sent to other great writers? Jane Austen maybe? Others?


Blogger Tasha Alexander said...

These are absolutely wonderful, Kathrynn!

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the book of samuel johnson should be 'Self-Help' I read it and i can tell you it's a big book telling how to be an engineer.


3:24 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Fabulous! I especially love the Samuel Johnson one.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

And some of my most famous "contest judge" rejection quotes (written about my entries):

"New York is going to hate this!"

"Your heroine is just too feisty."

"Your heroine and hero travel together too much. How are they going to get to know each other?"

Fortunately, my agent, and later my editor, thought differently!....but boy did it sting at the time (especially the thought that ALL fo New York would hate my story!)

9:05 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

This stuff really is a salve for the writer's soul. I also like to go to Amazon and read the 1-Star reviews for books I love (just take a peek at the bad reviews for Austen's Pride and Prejudice if you really want to be able to shrug off the sting of any you might have received for your own books!).

My all time favorite nasty contest quote was for the manuscript that went on become LORD SCANDAL: "I loathe everything about your hero."

9:20 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

You inspired me to dig out my one set of contest evaluations for the manuscript that became "The Secret History of the Pink Carnation".

My favorites:
"Your sense of humor... is certainly charming, but inappropriate for romance fiction that must fit into a set of conditions."

Huh. I wonder if anyone gave Julia Quinn that memo.

Damning with faint praise: "If you can find a publisher who actually publishes the kind of story you have written, then I'd say submit!"


Sense and?

Hee hee. Especially amusing nine books down the line, with "Pink Carnation" about to be reissued in mass market next month.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Samuel Johnson said that about somebody else's manuscript...it wasn't sent to him. But a fun list!

2:07 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

These are hysterical, Kathrynn. I received a rejection letter for the novel that became BY A LADY. It was from an editor I later worked with in a different genre, and whom I happen to adore, but we had not met at the time. She, one of the biggest names in Romance editing, described the tantric sex scene as "the most sensuous love scene I have ever read," but concluded that because it had too much historical detail to be a Romance, and too many romantic elements to be strictly historical, plus it was a time-travel (and no one was publishing paranormal then), that they didn't know what to do with it.

Publish it, was my reaction.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Oh, Leslie! I had an agent decline to represent me by telling me "It's clear you really like history." And she didn't mean it as a compliment, LOL!

5:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kathrynn! And very reassuring in an odd way :-).

5:58 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My favorite of the agent rejections I've gotten: "Well, you can write, but you'll never make it doing historicals. If you wanted to try chicklit, though..."

I was tempted to thank that agent when I accepted my 2009 best historical RITA for The Edge of Impropriety." But that would have been improper. Not to speak of edgy.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

And I love hearing about once-dismissed manuscripts that have since been published, won a RITA, been scheduled for a re-release, and have lead to more contracts...!

Keep the faith!

9:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...


And how lovely as well to see that beloved, sober-sided, snotgreen original Lolita cover.

Which wouldn't tell you, if you didn't already know it, that the Olympia Press (the only publisher who'd touch Nabokov's brilliant, beautiful, touching investigation of obsessive love) was responsible for a remarkable line of pornographic AND avant garde fiction.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

How cool, Pam! I would have never guessed Olympia Press had such a scarlet past. Wonderful!

1:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh yeah. All kinds of good literature and all kinds of good trash -- from my wide-eyed wicked adolescence.

And why I never feel insulted when anybody calls romance "pornography for women."

9:15 AM  

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