17 Famous Authors and Their Rejections

iStock // Getty Images
iStock // Getty Images

by Alex Carter

It’s hard to think that authors who have sold millions of books could ever have been rejected, but everyone had to start somewhere.

1. HERMAN MELVILLE

Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was turned down by multiple publishers, some of whom had creative suggestions for the author. Peter J. Bentley of Bentley & Son Publishing House wrote: "First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?"

Melville nevertheless got his tale of futile revenge published—by none other than Richard Bentley, of Bentley & Son. (The American edition debuted less than a month later.) That said, the author still made some serious sacrifices, paying for the typesetting and plating himself.

2. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The Sun Also Rises is perhaps Hemingway's most widely read work, but not everyone was a fan. In 1925, Moberley Luger of publisher Peacock & Peacock wrote to the 26-year-old author: "If I may be frank — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other. Your bombastic, dipsomaniac, where-to-now characters had me reaching for my own glass of brandy."

It's a harsh assessment—though from what we know of Hemingway, it proposes a scenario that is not unlikely either. Still, this rejection hardly damaged his career. The novel would be published by Scribner's the following year.

3. GEORGE ORWELL

Sometimes fellow writers give the thumbs down. In 1944, T.S. Eliot was working at Faber & Faber and wrote a largely apologetic rejection of Animal Farm to George Orwell that included this appraisal: "… we have no conviction (and I am sure none of other directors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time … Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an animal farm at all without them: so that what was needed, (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”

The work was rejected by at least four publishers before making it into print in August 1945.

4. KENNETH GRAHAME

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.”

This might possibly be the most whimsical description ever of the adventures of Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger in the best-selling children's tale The Wind In The Willows.

5. H.G. WELLS

“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.”

Despite this editor's take on The War of The Worlds, the tale of alien invasion is still in print nearly 120 years later.

6. JOSEPH HELLER

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.”

Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical book about World War II after the 22 rejections he received: Catch-22.

7. KURT VONNEGUT

“We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted for our purpose. Both the account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, 'What’s a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?' have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance."

Sent to Kurt Vonnegut by Atlantic Monthly in response to three writing samples, this is one of the more pleasant rejection letters. Vonnegut turned the Dresden bombing account into Slaughterhouse-Five.

8. MARCEL PROUST

“I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”

To be fair, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is 1.5 million words long, so perhaps this is a reasonable question.

9. 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.”

Released in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita saw the light of day much sooner than this publisher hoped.

10. RUDYARD KIPLING

“...you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Rudyard Kipling got this response to a short story he pitched to a now-defunct newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner.

11. HUNTER S. THOMPSON

“...you shit-eating freak. I warned you not to write that vicious trash about me — Now you better get fitted for a black eyepatch in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum.”

Another example of writer-to-writer smacktalk. Hunter S. Thompson sent this doozy of a rejection to his biographer, William McKeen.

12. D.H. LAWRENCE

“...for your own sake do not publish this book.”

D.H. Lawrence did not take this advice, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover was soon published.

13. JOHN LE CARRÉ

"You’re welcome to le Carré—he hasn’t got any future.”

This note was sent by one publisher to another about John le Carré and his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which became an international best seller.

14. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

“Stick To Teaching.”

Louisa May Alcott rejected this dismissive response to Little Women. It would be published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, and remains a classic nearly 150 years later.

15. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

"You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character."

The rather drastic revision was suggested to F. Scott Fitzgerald about—you guessed it—The Great Gatsby.

16. STEPHEN KING

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

Despite this feedback, Stephen King eventually published The Running Man under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

17. SYLVIA PLATH

“Reject recommended: I’m not sure what 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.”

An editor at Alfred A. Knopf rejected Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar twice: first when the manuscript was submitted under a pseudonym (above) and again (below) when her name was attached to it. Her name proved to be surprisingly difficult for the editor to spell:

“I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly— “The Bell Jar”, with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel. The trouble is that she has not succeeded in using her material in a novelistic way; there is no viewpoint, no sifting out o the experiences of being a Mademoiselle contest winner with the month in New York, the subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempts, the brash loss of virginity at the end. One feels simply that Miss Plat is writing of them because [these] things did happen to her and the incidents are in themselves good for a story, but throw them together and they don’t necessarily add up to a novel. One never feels, for instance, the deep-rooted anguish that would drive this girl to suicide. It is too bad because Miss Play has a way with words and a sharp eye or unusual and vivid detail. But maybe now that this book is out of her system she will use her talent more effectively next time.”

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER