It’s hard to imagine that the definitive icons of literature could have been subject to the same iciness of the high-gated publishing-house “no” machines that we know all too well. Of course, even down-to-earth publishers can miss a great work sitting on their desks; with thousands of titles of varying merit clogging editors’ mailboxes, it’s impossible to skim every page of every slush-pile manuscript, let alone give it its proper consideration. Furthermore, some of our most adored geniuses churned out well-spotted crap before maturing into the artists we remember.
Prescience is no hard science, but hindsight can be a kick in the shins nonetheless, especially for the editors who sent these rejection letters to writers who would later become the bestselling, influential giants of their day — and ours.
Rejected: an overly verbose manuscript by Gertrude Stein
Publisher Arthur Fifield must have been very proud of this lampoon of Stein’s — admittedly confounding, provocative — style. At the time, 1912, she was only beginning to enter the literary scene and hadn’t yet established the reputation that would draw in great artists, writers, and personalities through the rest of her career and life. The manuscript in question might not have amounted to much, but after being rejected by Fifield, she did become an accomplished, bestselling author, with titles like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Moreover, her expat Paris living room became the epicenter of a rich art world, one her famed contemporaries visited for contacts, review, and social company — and one whose fruits are, today, examined and reexamined by theorists, academics, and critics worldwide.
The letter reads:
I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”