Sunday, September 16, 2007

Be Careful What You Ask For

One of the rites of passage for any novelist is receiving that first rejection notice.

A rejection slip is an important step on the way to publication because it means that the writer has finally developed the confidence to cast his bread upon the waters.

Last week, the New York Times printed a very interesting article titled "No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov."

After the death of Alfred A. Knopf, founder of the publishing house of the same name, his papers and the early records of his publishing house (1873 to 1996) were archived in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The 1526 boxes plus art work, film, galleys, realia, and video provide a fascinating insight into the workings of a publishing house.

The New York Times article focussed on the rejections by Knopf of books that went on to become best sellers at other publishing houses. Among the books Knopf, his wife and their editor-in-chief Harold Strauss turned away were Anne Frank's diary, Pearl Buck's The Good Earth and Nabokov's Lolita.

The final arbiters were Alfred A. Knopf, his wife Blanche Knopf (who took over as company president in 1957) and their editor in chief, Harold Strauss. After a manuscript was judged to be wrong for the list — a process that included input from numerous people — a rejection letter would follow, often written by the publisher himself.

Writers today frequently bemoan the impersonal nature of rejection letters. Reading some of the personal letters written by Knopf, I think I'd have been happier with a form letter. Here's one example of a letter Knopf sent to "a prominent Columbia University historian":

This time there’s no point in trying to be kind . . . Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.

Read the entire article here.


Colleen said...

After reading some of the comments sent by Mr. Knopf, who among us will look at a form rejection the same way again? Why the form letters seem almost tender in comparison. Yikes.

Mary Witzl said...

When I got my first personal, encouraging, relatively lengthy rejection letter, I was so grateful I actually burst into tears. I filed it straight away into my 'Encouraging Letters' folder.

Here's hoping I'll never get anything as awful as the one that one that poor old historian got...

Maya Reynolds said...

Colleen: I know. As bad as some of the rejections I got, none of them matched Mr. Knopf's missive. I think the very literary nature of his response made it worse.

Maya Reynolds said...

Mary: I STILL have my first "personalized" rejection. I was so excited to get something other than a form letter, I waved it around saying, "But, see, see, it's a real letter."

Only another writer could understand.

BTW, save all your rejections. It's one of the ways you prove to the IRS that you're serious about writing.