In late March 2022, I found a great little book that is in part hysterical, in part sad, and in part “Boy did that publisher make a mistake!”
Rotten Rejections: A literary Companion, edited by André Bernard, Pushcart Press,
Wainscott, NY, 1990.
Per the blurb – “The editor has selected the nastiest rejection letters he could discover, many contributed by the rejected authors and a few by the rejecting editors.” Then they list some of the well-known authors. I won’t share that list with you now but introduce them as the series progresses. But I will share the listing of the publishers who had been so rotten!
Not a shabby list at all.
We are going to enjoy this book together. I am going to start at the beginning of the book and pick the “really good ones” or do I mean “the really bad ones”. When I get enough for the musing, I will stop and put the book aside until I do the next one in the series. And the book has some great drawings as well and I’ll share these as we go along.
This is the second in the series.
I trust you will enjoy them and maybe even shocked by the dumb rejection. Hindsight is great, isn’t it?
I am going to start with a rejection letter sent to J. P. Donleavy, re his first book, The Ginger Man. I have collected all of his works, and will follow the rejection notice with the story of its publication history.
The Ginger Man, J. P. Donleavy, 1955
…publication of The Ginger Man would not be a practical proposition in this country. So much of the text would have to be excised that it would almost destroy the story, and even a certain amount of rewriting would not overcome the problem…I do not think you will find another publisher who would be willing to undertake the publication under present circumstances.
James Patrick Donleavy (1926 – 2017) was an American-Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright. His best-known work is the novel The Ginger Man, which was initially banned for obscenity. The person who wrote the rejection note, above, was correct. No publisher in Britain or the United States accepted the book. In order to get The Ginger Man published he bought the Olympia Press, Paris. Olympia Press was a Paris-based publisher, launched in 1953 by Maurice Girodias as a rebranded version of the Obelisk Press he inherited from his father Jack Kahane. It published a mix of erotic fiction and avant-garde literary fiction, and is best known for the first print of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
It specialized in books which could not be published (without legal action) in the English-speaking world, and correctly assumed that the French, who were unable to read the books, and were more sexually tolerant, would leave them alone. They were books to buy if your travels took you through Paris.
Precisely 94 Olympia Press publications were promoted and packaged as "Traveller's Companion"; books, usually with simple text-only covers, and each book in the series was numbered.
The Ginger Man, J. P. Donleavy, The Traveller’s Companion #7, The Olympia Press, Paris,
The first edition of the book was a paperback. In 1958, the same press brought out the first hardcover printing of the book.
The first printings in Britain and the United States were heavily edited. The first unexpurgated printings were decades later.
The book was a huge success, translated into many languages and is still in press today. The Modern Library included this book in their listing of the best 100 novels written in the twentieth century.
Let’s look at some other great rejection notes!
Thumbs Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936
I thought it was swell, but all the femmes down here said it was horrid. The thumbs, I suppose, were too much for them.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous.
The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank, 1952
The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift the book above the “curiosity” level.
The Shrieking Skeleton, Erle Stanley Gardner, 1937
The characters talk like dictionaries, the so-called plot has whiskers on it like Spanish moss hanging from a live oak in a Louisiana bayou.
The Last of the Plainsmen, Zane Grey, 1908
I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891
The Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway, 1926
It would be in extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.
Kon-Tiki. Thor Heyerdahl, 1952
The idea of men adrift on a raft does have a certain appeal, but for the most part this is a long, solemn and tedious Pacific voyage.
The Blessing Way, Tony Hillerman, 1970
If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.