Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters

[Image via “Publication is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives.” The Missouri Review. Volume 23, Number 3, 2000, pp. 83-86. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/missouri_review/summary/v023/23.3.article.html. Used with permission.]

Rejected: Signs of Water, a novel by Peter Matthiessen

Although Matthiessen started out as nothing but a promising young author trying to make it in the sea of sharks that lived in the publishing houses, the “painfully immature writer” blossomed into something of a literary it boy when he went to Paris, then a ganglion of letters, and collaborated with its famous life-long editor George Plimpton to found The Paris Review. As it turns out, Matthiessen was a CIA agent at the time and has since explained The Paris Review away as his cover. Nonetheless, it was a pretty believable cover, and while Signs of Water didn’t make it very far up the literary chain, Matthiessen did. The two Knopf editors who rejected him, identified on the reader report as Fox (JMF) and Vandrin (PV), have probably ground their teeth for their harsh remarks.

Matthiessen’s rejection slip and reader review, as well as many others from the Knopf archives, some in the pages to come, live in the treasure troves in Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which is where the Missouri Review went digging for them about a decade ago. This one reads as follows:

PV and JMF read this quickly over the weekend. It is a very bad novel, its cast of characters drawn from the same class as J.P. Marquand, Jr. portrayed recently. The action takes place over a weekend in a New England village by the sea. There are a great many flashbacks and the thoughts of every character are reported faithfully ad nauseum. But since these people and their thoughts are adolescent, banal, self-pitying, trivial and totally unsympathetic, this conscientiousness merely adds to our dislike of “Signs of Winter.” We had great hopes for this guy on the basis of a few short stories but Matthiessen is still a painfully immature writer who needs to write a great deal more and a very patient editor. Even so this does not seem salvageable to us—let someone else struggle if they will. REJECT.

JMF 3/16/53

I concur.          PV 3/16/53