Knowing that others have been rejected before you, that authors you admire, who’ve won prizes and gone on to glorious careers, have been badly rejected, can ease your burden. Here are some of those rejections.
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 what was needed was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
Poet T.S. Eliot, then an editor at Faber and Faber, used the above to reject George Orwell’s now classic dystopia Animal Farm in 1945. Orwell had big trouble selling the book in the UK, and, as the quote below from an unknown editor illustrates, in the US.
It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, debuted with his Barsoom series, the first one of which was A Princess of Mars, originally titled Under the Moons of Mars, for which he got this rejection:
In is not at all probable, we think, that we can make use of the story of a Virginian soldier of fortune miraculously transported to Mars.
Under the Moons of Mars became serialized – under the pen name Norman Bean to protect Burroughs’ reputation – and later sold as a novel to spark a cult following.
And if you thought that being rich and famous protected Burroughs from further rejections, here’s one for his historical novel The Outlaw of Torn, published in 1927, 15 years after A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes:
I am not sure there is any particular value in the happy ending. It seems to be more legitimate to have both De Vac and the outlaw die in the end, leaving the lady dissolved in tears, possibly on her way to become a nun.
John le Carré
Here’s what one editor wrote to John le Carré’s agent regarding le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy who came in from the Cold:
You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.
The Spy who came in from the Cold went on win to both the Gold Dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The 1965 movie of the same name went on to win an Edgar for best screen play and became one of the top grossing movies of that year. And, after more than 50 years, the novel is still in print.
Ernest Hemingway got this rejection for his The Torrents of Spring:
It would be in extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.
In 1889 an unknown editor rejected Rudyard Kipling with the following phrase (later found in Kipling’s letters):
I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.
Ursula K. LeGuin
Ursula K. LeGuin‘s groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which went on to win the Nebula award in 1968 and the Hugo award in 1969, was first rejected with the following motivation:
The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The Whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.
Apocryphal stories have Joseph Heller deciding to name his book Catch-22 after the 22 rejections it received. Here’s one of them:
I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.
In 1976, Tim Burton, then an 18-year-old still in high school, submitted a children’s book to Disney. To which he got this reply:
The story is simple enough for a young audience (age 4-6), cute, and shows a grasp of the language much better than I would expect from one of today’s high school students, despite occasional lapses in grammar and spelling. It may, however, be too derivative of the Seuss works to be marketable.
E.L. Doctorow got the following rejection letter for his debut novel Welcome to Hard Times:
Things improve a bit with the rebuilding of the village but then go to hell in a hack at the end. Perhaps there is a public what can take all this with a straight face but I’m not one of them.
The book sold, and went on to become a top movie, staring Henry Fonda, as well as launch Doctorow’s career.
Author William Golding got the following rejection for his Lord of the Flies:
It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.
Originally a dentist, Zane Grey became one of the first “millionaire authors”, writers getting rich from their works, the first of which was The Last of the Plainsmen, for which he received this rejection:
I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.
Author and famed military historian Len Deighton got the following rejection for his debut novel The IPCRESS File:
[Deighton] seems to have little idea of pace, and is enchanted with his words, his tough style, and that puts me off badly.
The IPCRES File went on to become an international bestseller and a movie staring Michael Caine.
But none of this quite matches this rejection the English Heavy Metal band Venom got from EMI:
And, if you’ve made it this far and are still interested, I can recommend the sadly out-of-print Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. There you might read about Kentucky writer Lee Pennington who received so many rejections that he, using the rejections from a single six-month period, wallpapered an entire room, all four walls.
He also got 2-page, single spaced rejection, for a poem about William Faulkner, that said:
This is the worst poem in the English language. You are the worst poet in the English language.
Pennington immediately sent the poem to another magazine, which published it and chose it as the year’s best poem.
It should be noted that by the end of his career, Pennington had been published in over 300 different magazines.
I’ll leave you with another wonderful quote from Pushcart’s Complete, this one by George Bernard Shaw:
I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them.