The Sorry State of the Rejection Letters
by Bill Morris
I started making my living as a writer the day after Jimmy Carter got elected president. Today, more than 30 years later, a novel of mine is going out to publishers in purely digital form for the first time. That is, after writing the book on a manual Royal typewriter, I transcribed and edited it on a laptop and sent a digital copy to my agent, who read it on his Kindle, then forwarded it electronically to editors, who presumably read it (or skimmed it, or didn’t) on their Kindles, Nooks or iPads. So eco-friendly! So fast! So cheap!
Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads – who has time for such nonsense anymore? – they’ve all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.
For years I’ve kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The “agony” is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I’ve kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I’ve also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection.
One of the oldest items in my Agony File is a typewritten letter on Franklin Watts, Inc., letterhead dated March 10, 1986. It was written to my agent by Ed Breslin, who was then the publishing house’s Editor-in-Chief. The letter, which consists of four long single-spaced paragraphs that cover two pages, offers a detailed critique of a novel I’d written called Henry Miller Lives!, the story of a Nashville disc jockey named Peter, a frustrated writer who’s visited by the ghost of his literary hero, Henry Miller. Fireworks ensue.
“Greatly did I appreciate the opportunity to read Bill Morris’s Henry Miller Lives!,” Breslin’s letter begins. “The idea for the story is a good one, and a true writing talent is shown developing with every page. Yet, and most unfortunately, a number of people reading the book also saw problems which when corrected, we fear, will take away its magic.”
He then dissects the book’s flaws, including one character who is “a cartoon-like straw man for the Yuppie existence,” another who is “shallow and fickle.” And: “No character presents an attractive alternative requiring a real choice for Peter…forcing a most anti-climactic ending.” As for the ghost of Henry Miller: “Finally, and this is most important, the appeal that Henry Miller has for Peter as a role model is never clear. (Miller) is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around – but from this description it is unclear who he really was, or how he inspires Peter.”
Breslin’s letter concludes: “Admittedly, it is unusual to try and explain so many of our reservations for a book we are returning. What I hoped to get across to you with all of this detail – and what I hope you will relay to Mr. Morris – is that there is real talent in Henry Miller Lives!…and we are most certainly interested in such talented work in the future.”
This is about as good as agony gets – not only because of Breslin’s encouraging words but because he (and “a number of people” in the publishing house) read the manuscript closely, thought hard about it, discussed it and came up with valid ideas on how to make the book better. This is what rejection letters are supposed to do, what they used to do, and what they almost never do anymore.
Now comes the truly odd part: I wrote Breslin a two-page, single-spaced letter thanking him for taking the time to explain, so eloquently and incisively, why he wasn’t buying my book. “Over the years,” I wrote, “I’ve received my share of rejection letters (this novel is actually the fourth book I’ve written); but never have I received a rejection letter that contained half as much honesty and understanding. Rejection never feels good. Somehow you’ve made it feel less bad.” After explaining why I agreed with most of Breslin’s criticisms and disagreed with a few, I told him about a new novel I was working on, then closed with: “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just trying to thank you for reading Henry Miller Lives! and for responding so thoughtfully to it. And I’m hoping that when I finish a first draft of this new novel, you and I have another shot at each other.”
As it turned out, Franklin Watts did not publish that new novel, but Knopf did. I’ve often thought that without the encouragement I got from Breslin’s rejection letter I might not have finished that next novel. After writing four unsold books I was close to throwing in the towel. Thanks to Ed Breslin, I didn’t.