The Friday Fillip: Rejection Letters

We write. And become attached to what we write. We put something of ourselves into it, even if it’s a routine patch of prose for work. How discouraging, then, to have our words thrown back into our faces as unworthy.

One of the steps to becoming a lawyer, I’d say, is learning that professional writing, at least, is a collaborative venture. You give your draft to colleagues who feel free to wield the red pencil, or its slightly nicer Word “comment” version; and with varying degrees of irritation you suck it up and hit “accept changes.” Nothing personal. Still. . . .

Imagine, then, you’ve written a novel, some 100,000 words, perhaps, all hand-picked by you and arrayed in your chosen order on 400 pages of double-spaced printing, tapped into a perfect stack and capped with a pristine title page bearing your name. It might have taken years for you to have arrived at this point, wobbling atop a giant, though virtual, pile of crumpled revisions. This apple is polished. It is the apple of your eye.

Then imagine the dejection at rejection, the mental scramble to find an emotional footing that will let you comprehend it. They’re wrong, of course, the careless, superficial, ill-educated, badly-paid drudges who have never written a novel but who have presumed to know the value of yours.

And it’s true, of course: editors and agents do get it wrong. Sometimes famously. So if you’re in the slough of despond because of rejection, take a moment to look at a wonderful piece by Romy Oltuski in the Atlantic Magazine, “Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters.” Here we learn that:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin “writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel.”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, “What’s a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?” have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance.”
  • Sylvia Plath may have “a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”
  • Jack Kerouac’s On the Road prompted one ignoramus to say “I don’t dig this one at all.”

Feeling better? Not yet? Then head on over to and their page on “Rotten Rejections.” Herewith only three of my favorites:

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré: ‘You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell: ‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: ‘I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.’

Now, before you rush back to your keyboard, all invigorated, you might want to toughen your hide as a prophylactic against (highly unlikely) further rejections. In which case, you’ll want The Rejection Generator, where you’ll be able to send yourself an email (anticipatorily) rejecting your work, choosing from among seven different styles. Here’s a rejection (style: Body Blow) I just sent myself:

Dear Writer,

We can see all the work, care, and even love that you’ve put into this piece, which makes it harder to tell you that we won’t be accepting it. This is hard for us, because we just can’t stop laughing… All that work, all the devotions of your soul and your heart, and you produce this? That’s hilarious. We can barely type because we’re laughing so hard.

The Editors

Thanks. I needed that.


  1. m. diane kindree

    Thanks for giving us all another reason to use several pen names.
    This Mark Twain approach should diminish the sting of rejection because you can blame the failure on your penpal. I reckon the only way to ensure one’s soul-searching literary treasures are published is if you own the publishing company and/or are the editor-in-chief. Failing all this, learn to meditate until your true calling is revealed. Who knows you may be the first celebrity lawyer to be selected to perform on Dances With The Stars.

  2. Even worse than the rejection letter is the poor review. The magazine I publish, girlworks (aimed at girls aged 11 – 16) was trashed by Lynn Crosbie in the Globe & Mail in 2010.

    Though I will spare you the entire review, some of the juicier bits are:
    – in commenting on an article on how to deal with acne, Crosbie wrote of a picture ” a girl poised to burst a cystic nightmare into the viewer’s face, and is pretty well the most disgusting homage to porn I have ever seen”

    – and on the sports article… “as a bookish, clothes-obsessed, hate-filled teen, my friends and I were not too heavy into sports unless they meant sport-drinking”…

    The review was much more telling of (a sport-drinking 12 year old) Crosbie, I think, than the actual publication which is loved by girls and young women, educators and librarians throughout the world.

    The truth is that artists, whether writers, musicians, visual artists or others must create. They do not create to sell, they do not create to be told their art is worthy and wanted. They create because they must. Thank goodness for that.