Manuscript complete, a young British writer dashed off his first novel for review by a publishing house.The premise of his book was simple enough: a band of schoolboys struggles to survive on an uninhabited island. Yet publishers ripped it to shreds. Twenty-one publishers, to be exact. One went so far as to call the author’s work “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
If William Golding had called it quits after collecting a stack of rejection letters, Lord of the Flies would never have made it to bookshelves. To date, it’s sold more than 14.5 million copies and made it on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list. Golding also went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not too shabby.
It almost seems a rite of passage for bestselling authors: acquiring a few dozen rejection letters before making it big. Today their books are stamped with awards and critics’ praise. But it wasn’t long ago that editors shredded their manuscripts and denied them publication. Next time you open a rejection letter (or email) visualize these literary greats– and get back to writing.
No list of rejected authors would be complete without Lewis, who was turned down 800 times before selling a single piece of writing. His Chronicles of Narnia was eventually translated into 47 languages and sold more than 100 million copies.
Fifteen publishers refused to print The Diary of Anne Frank. One critic postulated, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level. It seems more than 25 million were curious enough to buy it.
The voice of the Beat Generation was almost silenced by publishers. Early critics were convinced On the Road would fail. One wrote, “His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.” Millions of copies sold and a major motion picture would have us believe otherwise.
“I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” The San Francisco Examiner roasted Kiping’s writing, but the author persevered. Today, millions of readers (and Disney) are thankful for that.
Poets weren’t spared the disdain of the publishing world. One editor attempted to hush Sylvia Plath by telling her, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Today she’s one of America’s most celebrated poets and the recipient of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” was the snippy response from one publisher to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Even T.S. Eliot, as head of Faber & Faber, scoffed at the book and its “Trotskyite politics.” Eventually publisher Secker & Warburg snatched up the manuscript and watched it climb the bestsellers list.
Louisa May Alcott
One publisher advised Alcott to “stick to teaching.” She ignored the (now defunct) publisher’s advice and penned Little Women, which remains in print almost 150 years later.
The War of the Worlds received some brutal evaluations. A particularly grumpy editor attacked Wells’ piece with abandon, calling it “An endless nightmare.” I think the verdict would be “Oh don’t read that horrid book.” The verdict reads a little more like this: read by millions and the inspiration for a string of feature films, radio dramas, comic books, a record album and a TV series.
Stephanie Ostroff graduated from the University of Maryland in 2011 with a degree in journalism. Her writing has been featured in National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog and USA WEEKEND Magazine, among other publications.