Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Book Shows That Even Great Writers Get Rejected Harshly

Many publishers and authors are under the impression they must get a lot of book reviews especially from readers on Amazon.  Imagine back a generation ago, before there was Amazon or a presumed formula for success involving a quantity of user reviews, when authors relied on the reviews published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals by paid, professional book critics, where the evaluative words of a handful of people could make or break one’s writing career and dictate one’s commercial viability.  Then, think about how those reviews shaped the way a writer and his or her work was to be viewed by the masses. What a book reviewer clanked out carried a lot of weight.

Believe it or not, many great writers received ugly rejection letters from book publishers, nasty critiques from fellow writers, and terrible reviews from the press. Not only managed to survive such attacks, but thrived.  To see evidence of this look no further than the 1998 publication of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections, edited by Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard.  

Up and coming writers may take solace in knowing trained professionals failed to recognize the genius in great works such as Alice in Wonderland, Lolita, Moby-Dick, and Lords of the Flies.

This book, dedicated to showing that not everyone agrees on what constitutes a great or even a good book, should inspire all writers to persevere in the face of rejection.  If Melville, Heller, Austen and others weathered negative responses, so can you!

Rotten Reviews is for all writers who spent years if not a lifetime, writing a book and then had it dismissed by a rotten review,” notes Henderson.  “Rotten reviews have happened to some of the best books and authors.”

Some of the best known books have received harsh criticism, including these:

Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
“A flamboyant failure”
--San Francisco Chronicle

“A gadfly with delusions of grandeur.”
-- Time

“Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong
“This crappy novel…”
--New Statesman

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
“Completely unpleasant.”
--The New Yorker

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
“The merest trash, not worth a second look.”
--The New Republic

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
“This isn’t writing.  It’s research.”
--The New Republic

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
“This is on the whole too grim a picture to have wide appeal.”
--Kirkus Reviews

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
“It gasps for want of craft and sensibility…The book is an emotional hodge podge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.”
--New York Times Book Review

The list goes on and on.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary proved not to be immune from wretched criticisms as well.

On the subject of reviews, several writers were quoted.  Two stuck out:

“In the first place I do not believe writers should read reviews of their own books, and I do not.  If one is not careful one is soon writing to please reviewers and not their audience or themselves.”
--Louis L’Amour

“It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised.  Fame is a shuttlecock.  If it struck at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground.  To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.”
--Samuel Johnson

A sample of rejection letters includes these gems:

Catch – 22 Joseph Heller 1961
“I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say.  It is about a group of American Army officers.  This, as you may imagine, constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.”

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold  John Le Carré 1963
“You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”

Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Susann 1966
“…she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro.”

The Time Machine  H.G. Wells 1895
“It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”

Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand 1957
“…the book is much too long.  There are too many long speeches…I regret to say that the book is unsaleable and unpublishable.”

The Fountainhead Ayn Rand 1943
“It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic.”

Animal Farm George Orwell 1945
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

Lolita Vladimir Nabokov 1955
“It will not sell and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation…It is a totally perverse performance all around.”

Moby-Dick  Herman Melville 1951
“We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the Juvenile Market in [England.}  It is very long, rather old-fashioned, and in our opinion not deserving of the reputation which it seems to enjoy.”

The Assistant Bernard Malmud 1957
“…superficial and unconvincing…I do not see this book as a very well told story on any level.  I do not think it would have either a good critical reception or substantial sales.  Cumulatively depressing.”

Ironweed  William Kennedy 1983
“There is much about the novel that is very good and much that I did not like.  When I throw in the balance the book’s unrelenting lack of commerciality, I am afraid I just have to pass.”

Lord of the Flies William Golding 1954
“It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”

The Diary of Anne Frank  Anne Frank 1952
“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the “curiosity” level.”

Brandt, in his introduction, questions why one chooses to be a book reviewer.  He notes: “Reviewing will never make one rich.  The enemies one makes writing reviews will almost inevitably seek revenge if one should be so foolish as to publish one’s own books.”

He knows reviewers feel power in what they do.  Readers delight in seeing blood every now and then.  The public demands a good beat down every so often.  Reviewers may be underpaid, despised, feared, and at times right on the money – but they have pride and courage exceeded by few.  It may give one a sense of power to pass judgment on others, to be clever at the expense of someone who pours their heart out. And it’s a satisfying feeling to read a book that details how so many in the know could be so, so wrong at times.

One of the most interesting things in Brandt’s book was about how reviews used to be bought and paid for by book publishers.  He writes:

“When the reviewing of books first became common practice in the United States, in the 1840s, it was quite rare to find a rotten review of any book, however egregious a product it may have been.  We must not assume, however, that this was some golden age of concord between authors and reviewers.  The concord was entirely between publishers and newspapers, the former paying the latter, by one quiet means or another for favorable reviews…reviewers were discovered to be salaried employees of the publishers whose books they were reviewing.  Some publishers had been helpfully sending to newspapers along with their books unsigned reviews that they themselves had written, with the helpful hint that the papers were free to use these reviews however they wished.  It was all terribly scandalous and it had to stop.”

have you received a reject letter or a bad review? consider it an honor. You are in good company.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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