Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Andre Bernard: Rotten Rejections

You may well have heard of this book. It was first published in 1990, and seems to have been through various incarnations since. I have been reading the version published in the UK in 1991 by Robson Books.

Andre Bernard is the compiler, or editor, and he seems to have been a leading light in the Pushcart Press, Rotten Rejections' original publisher. The book's subtitle is The Letters That Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent. In other words, it largely consists of extracts from letters written by publishers -- letters which not only reject, but in many cases are also highly critical of, books which subsequently went on to become literary classics or enormous bestsellers.

In his introduction, Bernard thanks 'the brave editors who admitted their mistakes and contributed letters... and the few writers who admitted they had ever been rejected and produced the document or the memory.' So Bernard evidently did a trawl and asked people in the book world for examples of book rejections which later proved to be a mistake.

But were they really mistakes? You know, this book is generally spoken of as if it proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that all publishers are fools who couldn't recognise a bestseller if it came with two years of sales figures attached. Indeed, I may, in moments of stress, have given that general impression myself.

In my calmer moments, however, I take leave to doubt whether that is so.

In the first place, there are often good reasons for a publisher to reject a book which goes on to be a huge success when published by another firm. The book may be excellent of its kind, but not something that the publisher wishes to deal with. As for one of his own 'mistakes', rejecting John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Bernard says that he would do it again. So would I.

Then there's the comment on Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that I have barely heard of Henry Roth, and I doubt that you are much better informed either, but the comment is as follows: 'As a practical commercial venture I am against it.' Which seems to me to be an example of very sound judgement indeed. Especially when you look up Roth on the internet, and find that his book was originally published in the 1930s, and his publisher went bankrupt.

Then there's an American publisher's take on The New Men, by C.P. Snow. 'It's polite, literate, plodding, sententious narrative of considerable competence but not a trace of talent or individuality;.... Real dull stuff for us Americans. The values in it are so bloody sanctimonious English that I found it hard to take.'

Which strikes me as an excellent summary, and really rather far-sighted. (It must have come, I think, from the 1960s.)

All in all then, this book is not the source of justified sniggering and finger-pointing that it is often thought to be. But it's an interesting enough read if you can find a cheap secondhand copy somewhere.


Anonymous said...

Call it Sleep was a great book, touching, true, heartfelt, well-crafted and the guy had lots of things to say that were worth saying. He wrote stories for the New Yorker way later but Call it Sleep is on my very short list of books worth having read. I paid a secret little tribute to him in Ch 31 of I paid lots of secret tributes to lots of writers who wrote stuff worth reading...not many of whom does anyone ever hear much about anymore. G.

Anonymous said...

But for a little girl called Alice the first Harry Potter book would have been rejected by every possible publisher in the UK. There's no doubt in my mind that Bloomsbury (cited as Rowling's last hope) would have rejected it because the first print run was 500. That certainly shows how much faith Nigel Newton had in his daughter's judgement!