Fun history: Great blunders, literature division

People in literature are different from you and me.

University of Texas history professor David Oshinsky pulled back the curtain on some of the biggest blunders in the history of literature, in an article for the New York Times a couple of days ago: “No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov.”

He documents rejection letters that, in retrospect, perhaps publisher Alfred A. Knopf would rather had not been written — despite the fact that Knopf was enormously successful otherwise. For example, about a book on teen-aged angst:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

The goof examples roll out of the files:

Nothing embarrasses a publisher more than the public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega best seller has somehow slipped away. One of them turned down Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” Another passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” (It’s not only publishers: Tony Hillerman was dumped by an agent who urged him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”)

Thousands of high school students would agree with the difficulty of selling animal stories.

Oshinsky is working from the files of Knopf, recently donated to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas, in Austin. University libraries push and shove each other to get troves of private correspondence, and the HRC has worked to get special grants to help things along. Sometimes these treasures lie buried in library archives. In this case, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund the cataloging operation.

And Oshinsky, who won the Pulitzer for his book Polio: An American Story, has done a bit of history mining. The few nuggets of history gold he reveals in the newspaper will be “classic examples” of why authors, and students and people in the pews of a church, should keep trying in the face of adversity. You’ll see these examples in Readers Digest and inspirational speeches for years to come, count on it.

Literature teachers should find these quotes useful in comforting students who don’t like the classics they are assigned to read. Preachers will find them useful for a variety of reasons. Others of us will like them for the goofiness, and sheer acidity of harsh criticism that, often, proved wrong. We’re Americans; we like it when the underdog wins, and when the pundits get so exactly wrong.

More examples from Oshinsky’s article, below the fold.

♦    “In 1958, Alfred Knopf sent this pointed note to T. Harry Williams, a professor of Southern history, who also had published a successful book with the company a few years before: ‘Dear Harry — I am terribly sorry because I would love to have a really good manuscript from you, but Americans at War isn’t it.'”  (The book was published by Louisiana State University in 1960 to good reviews; Williams is known now for Lincoln and His Generals, and as the namesake for the oral history center at LSU.  Knopf published Williams’ Huey Long, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1970.)

♦    About Jorge Luis Borges:  “. . . utterly untranslatable.”

♦    Isaac Bashevis Singer:  “It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.”  (Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.)

♦    About Anaïs Nin:  “There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic.”

♦    On Sylvia Plath:  “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”

♦    Jack Kerouac:  “His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.”

♦    James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room:  “. . . hopelessly bad.”  (The Literary Encyclopedia calls it “a masterpiece.”

♦     “Alfred Knopf personally turned down R. R. Palmer’s classic, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, telling the Princeton historian that his book would never earn back the $7,750 in ‘total production costs’ the project would require — a big mistake, it turned out.”  (The book was published in 1960 by Princeton University Press, won the Bancroft prize, and is still in print.  It is considered the classic and most thorough history of the revolutions of this period.)

♦    Oshinsky wrote:  “Today, as publishers eschew the finished manuscript and spit out contracts based on a sketchy outline or even less, the scripting of rejection letters has become something of a lost art. It’s hard to imagine a current publisher dictating the sort of response that Alfred Knopf sent to a prominent Columbia University historian in the 1950s. ‘This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,’ it said. ‘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.'”

3 Responses to Fun history: Great blunders, literature division

  1. Kevin says:

    Interesting point of view.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Some of these from Knopf rank up there with the Decca Records executive who rejected a band from England, noting that “guitar bands are on the way out.” In fact, Capitol Records rejected the Beatles, too, but they were able to wangle the band back when Chicago’s VeeJay Records, an R&B label who signed the Beatles fast, was unable to make the payments to the band due to general financial mismanagement (the president of VeeJay was known to occasionally gamble the entire payroll from time to time, sometimes doubling the company’s money — long before Enron).

    Be sure to read the article at the New York Times. Oshinsky notes that Knopf often encouraged writers, too, and got payoffs when they came back with a second or third effort that sold millions and won a Pulitzer.

    All we can do is keep plugging away, isn’t it?


  3. Cliff Burns says:

    I’ve collected well over 1500 rejection letters in my 20+ year writing career and posts like this one give some modicum of hope. If I’m not mistaken, there are a few publishers who are still kicking themselves because a certain young unknown author once came calling with a book about a boy wizard…and they sent the single mum packing.



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