Slush Pile Heroes: Authors Who Faced Rejection (and Triumphed)
For new writers, submitting work to be published can be an exercise in self-esteem maintenance. Everyone will warn you, but there’s really no way to prepare yourself for that first rejection letter, or worse, no response at all. Take a look at history, though, and you’ll see that initial rejection (or say, 22 years of it, in the case of Gertrude Stein), isn’t any indicator of future success, or skill, for that matter. So chin up, my as-yet-to-be-published cohorts. Pop your antidepressant of choice, shut the blinds, and get back to writing. Someday you could be as esteemed as these 5 rejected authors.
James Joyce: While hundreds of undergrad English majors might be happy if this notoriously obscure author had floundered into the literary abyss, they aren’t so lucky. Joyce unsuccessfully tried to get his first novel, Stephen Hero, published, and was so dismayed at the rejection that he didn’t touch the thing for years. Later on, he decided to revise the book, and turned it into today’s literary classic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
John Grisham: You can’t walk into a grocery story on any given day without seeing a new Grisham novel amongst the reading material at the checkout. This prolific writer of legal thrillers didn’t have an easy start, though. His first book, A Time to Kill, was rejected by all of 28 publishers, before a small-time press decided to give it a measly 5,000 book copy run. Dozens of novels and a few film adaptations later, Grisham is now one of the most popular writers out there.
Vladimir Nabokov: Oh, I long for the days when rejection letters were heartfelt, personalized letters of rebuke, rather than today’s boilerplate thanks-but-no. Take one of the rejection letters sent to Nabokov after he tried to get Lolita published: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian…I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Five major publishers passed up a book which is now regularly listed as one of the best works of modern literature. Let’s all keep this in mind, as we pen our own novels about middle-aged men sexually obsessed with tween girls.
J.K. Rowling: If you haven’t heard the lore about the welfare-drawing single mom J.K. Rowling writing Harry Potter in her local coffee shop, you’ve somehow found a way to block out all vestiges of pop culture. What’s your secret? In all seriousness though, Rowling’s story is pretty inspiring. Twelve publishers passed up the first installation in the youth-wizardry saga, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. You know the rest of the story: Rowling goes on to write seven Potter tales, we watch the chubby kids from the movie adaptations grow up into hot 20-somethings. And, Rowling is now a billionaire, and richer than the queen.
Agatha Christie: Who didn’t read And Then There Were None in 10th grade English and realize that this Dame and the mystery genre were in fact, awesome? Or maybe you read one of her 80 other detective novels. It’s likely, since only the holy word of God has sold more copies than Christie’s roughly 4 billion. Several publishers relegated her first attempted novel, Snow Upon the Desert, to the slush pile, however. She even had trouble finding an agent who would represent her. Thankfully, she didn’t give up, and went on to publish enough books to fill all the used book stores in the world from now until eternity, or at least until we’re all living in global-warming-proof floating cities.