Sunday, September 9, 2007

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The ineluctable power of the bad review

In the New York Times Book Review, historian David Oshinsky writes about what he discovered in the archives of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Oshinsky's general finding is that, "the great bulk of the reader’s reports seemed fair-minded and persuasive. Put simply, a rejected manuscript usually appeared to deserve its fate."

This is boring, however. Oshinsky, like too many of us, is attracted to people when they are bad. So the bulk of Oshinsky's essay is devoted to the exceptionally bad reviews -- bad because they were clearly wrong about the manuscript, or bad because the review seemed to go out of its way to belittle the writer.

As an example of the first type of bad review, Oshinsky opens with:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

There's more: "Another passed on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, explaining it was 'impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.'"

When rejections are bad, however, they can be delightfully nasty, which is how Oshinsky closes:

Today, as publishers eschew the finished manuscript and spit out contracts based on a sketchy outline or even less, the scripting of rejection letters has become something of a lost art. It’s hard to imagine a current publisher dictating the sort of response that Alfred Knopf sent to a prominent Columbia University historian in the 1950s. “This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,” it said. “Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.”

Now, that’s a rejection letter.

For more on the Knopf archives, click here.

posted by Dan on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM


That's not even that nasty. It's the subject not the author or even the treatment that's "not worth a damn." We need to bring back rejection letters, rusty iron merry-go-rounds, and hockey brawls.

posted by: AC on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I always figure if I don't get one bad review, then I'm not saying anything worth saying.

posted by: arthur on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

So, was it ever published?

posted by: lee on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

That reviewer of The Diary of Anne Frank who said, in 1950, words to the effect of "The Holocaust is passe. We're tired of it, and the people involved were foreign anyway," was a piece of work. It's definitely newsworthy, and an insight into something or other -- reflexive anti-Semitism, provincialism, or just plain old dumbness.

posted by: Hal on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

The Orwell rejection note is an absolute classic. It's reminiscent of Harold Ross's "Is Moby Dick the man or the whale?"

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 09.09.07 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

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