6:14 PM EDT, July 20, 2012
Every writer -- even the great ones -- suffers rejection. Several years ago, The Missouri Review went digging in the Alfred A. Knopf archives and retrieved a collection of in-house readers' reports documenting the publisher's rejection of several notable authors. In "Publication is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives," the Review reprinted many of the reports. Here's an excerpt of the article, featuring the original text of several rejections.
Jorge Luis Borges: "El Aleph," 1949
For extreme erudition, fantasticalness, and general obliquity I have never read a collection of stories (are they stories, most of them?) to equal this. In reality these are moral parables, theological discussions, nightmares, and pure displays of the most recondite information, larded only two or three times with real stories. If you could combine the early Aldous Huxley, the H.G. Wells of The Time Machine and The Crystal Egg, and the most arcane efforts of Corvo you might get something like this. I'm afraid that they are utterly untranslatable, at least into anything that could be expected to sell more than 750 copies in the United States. That they are remarkable is beyond argument, but their peculiar variety of remarkableness seems to me to legislate against them as anything but $50-a-pound caviar to the general (including me). I'd decline with appropriate expressions of astonishment.
Knopf considered El Aleph the same year it was published in Spanish. In 1956 Emece published a revised edition of the book under the title "Obras Completas," volume 7. The book didn't appear in English until 1970, when Dutton released "The Aleph and Other Stories: 1933-1969."
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Italo Calvino: "L'entrata in Guerra," 1955
As I have already told Mrs. Knopf, Calvino seems to me an authentically gifted writer, mature, confident, and possessing the undistorted clarity of vision (unsentimental but not unfeeling) which we popularly attribute to a child. These three long episodes, all dealing withItaly'sdeclaration of war (the "stab in the back") are quite remarkable: the very first, describing the expedition of a troop of Fascist youth-militia (boy scouts, really) to Menton, their pillaging of the town, and the narrator's reaction and action, is a real beauty. All three stories document a watershed in one young man's experience; the impinging of the world on the essentially private preoccupations of the adolescent. As you know, I admired Calvino's first: the Trap-door Spider novel ("The Path to the Nest of Spiders"). He is one of the few, few, few fresh voices I have hit on in current Italian writing. There is no reason to suppose that you can sell more than 1600, 1800, 2000 of this book. But IF you are interested in gambling on what ought to be a rich future, go ahead and publish. It will certainly do you credit.
During the German occupation of Italy, Calvino joined guerrilla forces in the Ligurian mountains that were fighting for Italian control. This experience provided material for much of "L'entrata in guerra" and for some stories in "Ultimo viene il corvo." "L'entrata in guerra" has yet to be published in English.
Joyce Carol Oates: "Vendetta," 1959
Miss Oates has talent, and for all I know the long-hairs may single this out as a masterpiece. But to me it is nearly incomprehensible. Lord knows I tried, because I was tremendously impressed by Miss Oates' story, "In the Old World."
This "novel" concerns a boy without a last name who leaves home for unspecified reasons, headed for a place never specified, who encounters various people who give him lifts toward his unknown destination. The journey goes on through a mysterious countryside in an oppressive atmosphere, but one can never see the countryside nor feel the atmosphere. In counterpoint to this is the story of another boy who keeps helping his father repair a barn which keeps falling apart.
Now all this is no doubt allegorical and profoundly meaningful to the author. If you can imagine a mixture of Rex Warner and Kafka writing about American hillbillies, you can guess what this is. I defer to Grove or New Directions.
Knopf considered this early manuscript and another, "The Brittle Splendor of Artifice," when Oates was only 21 years old. Her first publication came the same year, when her story "In the Old World" appeared in the August issue of Mademoiselle. Her prolific publishing career would really begin four years later, with the release of the short-story collection "By the North Gate" (New York: Vanguard Press, 1963).
Cynthia Ozick: "The Conversion of John Andersmall," 1961
Employing the meliorative device of the stylized dialect story in dealing with the painful experience of Jewish self-hatred, Miss Ozick has composed a bitter-sweet fantasy that, for all her considerable talents, simply fails to come off. While clearly recognizing the intrinsic limitations of the dialect novel (in a letter accompanying the [manuscript] she cites its "built-in style ... word association ... word discriminations") her decision to utilize a dialect-speaking narrator — in an attempt, seemingly, to make a virtue of necessity — is a tactical blunder which only serves to amplify those qualities which, if anything, demanded attenuation. For now one has to deal, as well, with a built-in point of view — the narrator becomes, as it were, only a personalization of the mode itself — and the effect is one of utter monotony.
More substantively, Miss Ozick's tale of a son's alienation from his immigrant parents; his marriage to a wealthy Italian society girl and his fury at her conversion to Judaism, becomes increasingly fey and outrageously phony as a series of tricks and sentimental non sequiturs reunites them all in a final outpouring of chickensoup and sympathy.
The author mentions that she is working on a large work and I certainly think that we ought to ask for a chance to see it on completion. I view her present submission as an extended exercise (and an honorable failure) which while it doesn't work, suggests that she is, perhaps, just about to turn the corner.
"The Conversion of John Andersmall" was never published. Ozick's first novel, "Trust," was published by New American Library in 1966. In 1971, Knopf did publish "The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories," a prize-winning collection of short fiction which firmly established Ozick's literary reputation. She had a long career with Knopf; her latest work was published by Houghton Mifflin.
Sylvia Plath: "The Bell Jar," 1962-63
I'm not sure what (the British literary publisher) Heinemann's sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashness. But there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Plath any good service by offering it to the American public. The heroine of the book lacks depth, sensitivity and self-knowledge — she is, in short, a rather naif prig — and thus the reader can hardly be expected to become deeply concerned with the girl's struggle with insanity. Moreover, the author fails to make clear the psychological motives behind the heroine's plunge into madness.— Her boyfriend is a "drip"; and she's frustrated at not being admitted to an Advanced Writing course at college ... but these are hardly grounds for suicide. Or if they are, they are hardly interesting grounds.
The prose is uncertain, and occasionally atrocious. It wanders from the "turgid-poetic" ("Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust flew into my eyes and down my throat"), to the homely aphoristic ("There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them."). The general effect is one of emptiness, awkwardness and banality.
If this novel could be regarded as an articulate psychological document, we might, considering the circumstances of the author's death, and editorial loyalty, forget the book's failings. But it tells us nothing — except that Miss Plath turned out a quite unsuccessful first novel. I don't doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones' original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
In a letter to Plath, Editor Judith Jones was kind but firm in her rejection of "The Bell Jar," ultimately pointing to Plath's failure to mold her material in a "novelistic way." Once the novel was published, many critics echoed Jones' sentiments. The Times Literary Supplement wrote that "the author can certainly write," but that the novel lacked structure and shape. The American rejections and the later criticisms were disheartening to Plath, even though she dismissed her own work as amateurish. Regardless, she seemed genuinely excited about her new novel in progress and promised friends that it would show the same world as "The Bell Jar" except through the eyes of health. The novel was never completed.
After multiple suicide attempts and a lifetime of depression, Plath killed herself by taking sleeping pills and inhaling gas on Feb. 11, 1963. Knopf had published Plath's first collection, "The Colossus and Other Poems," the year before her death, a fact that did not guarantee continued support. For a variety of reasons, Knopf would reject "The Bell Jar" and her second poetry collection, "Ariel."
Excerpted with permission of The Missouri Review.