Try, Try Again: Rejection Letters Received by Bestselling Authors

For writers, getting rejected can seem like a pastime. But don’t take my word for it, even though I’ve gotten my share of no-thank-yous. These best-selling authors were rejected, too, and some not very kindly. Editors, publishers and agents have made big errors in judgment, as evidenced by the list of unkind (and sometimes needlessly rude) rejections received by these famous writers.

1. George Orwell

It seems Alfred Knopf didn’t always understand satire. Animal Farm, the famed dystopian allegory that later became an AP Reader standard and Retrospective Hugo Award winner, was turned down because it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” A British publishing firm initially accepted and later rejected the work as well, arguing that “…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.”

2. Gertrude Stein

Not much burns worse than mockery, and I would imagine Gertrude Stein was probably fuming when she received this letter from Arthur C. Fifield with her manuscript for Three Lives: “Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS 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.” Twenty years later, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her one and only best-seller.

3. Stephen King

Most fans know that King’s big break came with Carrie, the story of a friendless, abused girl with secret telekinetic powers. Though one publishing house told him they were “not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias.  They do not sell,” Doubleday picked up the paperback rights to the novel and sold more than a million copies in its first year.

4. William Golding

Though Lord of the Flies was one of my favorite books from high school, it seems some publishers disagreed. One unimpressed agent called the classic “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” To date, the book has been required reading in high schools for nearly fifty years, 14.5 million copies have been sold, and Golding’s work has been adapted for film twice.

5. Jack Kerouac


It’s not incredibly surprising that Kerouac’s work was considered unpublishable in his time. After all, the guy wrote about drugs, sex, and the kind of general lawlessness that many people in the 1950s considered obscene. When shopping out his ubiquitous On the Road, Kerouac’s agent’s mail contained gems like, “His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so” and even worse, “I don’t dig this one at all.”

6. Mary Higgins Clark

Back in 1966, the young romance author was trying to sell a story she called “Journey Back to Love.” It didn’t go well, however; her submission to Redbook came back with a rejection from the editors, stating "We found the heroine as boring as her husband had." Ouch! The piece was eventually run as a two-part serial in an English magazine, and Mary Higgins Clark currently boasts forty-two bestselling novels.

7. Ayn Rand

When Rand sent her manuscript out for The Fountainhead, a request from Bobbs-Merrill for her next work-in-progress came back with a curt “Unsaleable and unpublishable.” Not to be deterred, the author called upon Hiram Haydn, newly appointed editor-in-chief of Random House. After an “infinite number” of questions and an assurance that Ms. Rand would not be censored, she signed on with Random House and, to date, has sold over 7 million copies in the U.S.

8. Ernest Hemingway

In a bid to remove himself from a contract with publishers Boni & Liveright, Hemingway penned The Torrents of Spring with the sole intention of being rejected. Horace Liveright turned it down, Hemingway’s contract was broken, and he moved on to find a new publisher. Of course, it didn’t go smoothly; one queried editor told the author that “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.” It all ended well, however. Papa Hemingway moved on to Scribner, who published all of his books from then on—each of which became a bestseller.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
60 Years Later, a Lost Stanley Kubrick Script Has Been Found
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images

A “lost” screenplay co-written by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been found after 60 years, Vulture reports.

The screenplay is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret, which Vulture describes as a reverse Lolita (plot summary for those who forgot high school English class: a man enters a relationship with a woman because of his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter). In Burning Secret, a man befriends an adolescent boy in order to seduce his mother. Zweig’s other works have inspired films like Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which the director claims he "stole" from Zweig's novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl).

Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is co-written by novelist Calder Willingham and dated October 24, 1956. Although the screenplay bears a stamp from MGM’s screenwriting department, Nathan Abrams—the Bangor University professor who discovered the script—thinks it’s likely the studio found it too risqué for mass audiences.

“The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface,” Abrams told The Guardian. It's worth noting, however, that Kubrick directed an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1962, which MGM distributed, and it was also met with a fair share of controversy.

Abrams said the screenplay for Burning Secret is complete enough that it could be created by filmmakers today. He noted that the discovery is particularly exciting because it confirms speculations Kubrick scholars have had for decades.

“Kubrick aficionados knew he wanted to do it, [but] no one ever thought it was completed,” Abrams told The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Abrams found the screenplay while researching his book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The screenplay is owned by the family of one of Kubrick’s colleagues.

[h/t Vulture]

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