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: The Bell Jar, a novel by Sylvia Plath

The Knopf editor “jbj” knows all too well what difference a name drop can make; Plath originally submitted her novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, whose work received the original, terse in-house review printed below. When it was revealed that Victoria Lucas was in fact Sylvia Plath, an embarrassed jbj took a greater interest in the work, although he ultimately still rejected it. Plath’s only novel eventually became an American classic and staple of every high school curriculum, but before that, the rest of the Knopf staff seem to have agreed with jbj — unpublishable.

jbj’s reviews read:

[1] Reject recommended

I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.


[2] I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly—“The Bell Jar” with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel. The trouble is that she has not succeeded in using her material in a novelistic way; there is no viewpoint, no sifting out o the experiences of being a  Mademoiselle contest winner with the month in New York, the subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempts, the brash loss of virginity at the end. One feels simply that Miss Plat is writing of them because [these] things did happen to her and the incidents are in themselves good for a story, but throw them together and they don’t necessarily add up to a novel. One never feels, for instance, the deep-rooted anguish that would drive this girl to suicide. It is too bad because Miss Play has a way with words and a sharp eye or unusual and vivid detail. But maybe now that this book is out of her system she will use her talent more effectively next time. I doubt if anyone over here will pick this novel up, so we might well have a second chance.


A second Knopf reader, Patrick Gregory, though, was not as starstruck by the revelation of Plath’s true identity as jbj was, though, adding to the review:


This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.

P.G. 3/29/63