I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11



Publishers rejected classics in disguise



Can the publishers recognize a reputable work of genius when the famous name is detached from it? During a period of over a century several people, apparently independently, decided to check.

The first of these experiments [1] performed an anonymous correspondent of St. James’s Gazette back in 1887. Afterward some other newspapers identified him with the poet Robert Buchanan. The experimenter copied John Milton’s poem “Samson Agonistes,”  re-titled it ‘Like a Giant Refreshed,’ and sent it out to five publishers pretending to be the author.  Three of the publishers rejected the poem giving the following reasons

The market is now so flooded with sensational stories in shilling form that it is questionable whether yours would find its way to the bookstalls

In ‘Like a Giant Refreshed’ we find writing in our opinion equal to the best of the minor poets (if you will pardon our saying so), but nothing to promise a sale.

We have, however, already made out our list of new books for the coming season

Two of the publishers offered to publish the poem at author’s expense. The experimenter tried several magazines afterward, but the editors rejected the poem saying it was too long. The experimenter did not reveal the identities of the philistine publishers and magazines.

The second experiment that I know of took place almost a hundred years later [2]. In 1977 Chuck Ross retyped the novel “Steps” by Jerzy Kosinsky. He sent the novel, signed with the name Eric Demos, to fourteen publishers (see the table). Though Kosinsky’s book won a 1969 National Book Award, Demos’ book was far less successful.  All of the publishers rejected it, including Random House, the original publisher of the novel. Most of the rejection letters were formal. However, the editor of Houghton Miffing, the publisher of two other Kosinsky’s novels, wrote the following

Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole. It has some very impressive moments, but gives the impression of sketchiness and incompleteness. We do not see our way to publishing this particular work as it is, but if you should ever have other manuscripts in progress now or in the future, we would he happy to consider them.

Since the experimenter only changed the authorship, it must be Kosinsky’s important name what adds his novels thoroughness and completeness.

Publisher

Response

Alfred A. Knopf

rejected

David McKay

rejected

Doubleday

returned unopened

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

rejected

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

rejected

Harper & Row

rejected

Houghton Miffing (publisher of other Kosinsky’s novels)

rejected

McMillan

rejected

Prentice Hall

rejected

Random House (original publisher of “Steps”)

rejected

Seymour Lawrence

rejected

The Atlantic Monthly Press

rejected

Viking

rejected

William Morrow

rejected

In addition Ross sent the novel to 13 literary agents all of whom showed no interest. To another 13 agents he sent a letter of inquiry, which included a brief description of the novel. He used Kosinsky’s own brief description. Only one of those agents had shown interest but requested an $25 reading fee (equivalent of $100 in 2014). Upon receiving the fee and reading the novel the agent rejected it.

In 1991 David Wilkening, a reporter for the Orlando magazine The Weekly, asked his secretary to retype  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings'  novel ''The Yearling.'' He submitted it,   pretending to be the author, under the title ''A Cracker Comes of Age'' to 22 publishers. Though ''The Yearling'' won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939, ''A Cracker Comes of Age'' was a failure. Thirteen of the publishers had rejected the novel, while eight did not reply at all. Even the original publisher, Scribner, had rejected the book. Another rejection came from Doubleday.  Only one publisher, Pineapple Press, had recognized the book. Unfortunately I don’t know who other tested publishers were, since I could not get the original Wilkening’s article. I contacted Orlando public library, “The Weekly” magazine and Wilkening himself, but nobody had it. The only available source is the AP news release [3], which, alongside with Wilkening’s dim recollections, I used in putting together this article.

In 2006 Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale of The Sunday Times sent to 20 publishers and agents two famous novels presented as “works by aspiring authors” [4]. One of the books was “In a Free State” (Booker prize 1971) by V. S. Naipaul, who in addition got a Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. The other was “Holiday” (Booker prize 1974) by Stanley Middleton. The experimenters received 21 replies, all but one of which were rejections. In particular, major publishers Bloomsbury and Time Warner, and well-known agent Christopher Little rejected Middleton’s book. Major literary agencies Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Blake Friedmann, and Lucas Alexander Whitley rejected Naipaul’s book.  Only London literary agent Barbara Levy, showed an interest for Middleton’s novel. However, she rejected Naipaul’s book just like everyone else. Nobody at all had recognized the famous novels.

While working on this article I decided to try such experiment myself. I copy-pasted six poems of renowned contemporary Russian poet Dmitry Bykov into an MS Word file. I opened an email account in the name of Sergey Korovin and sent the poems to ten literary magazines. I got three replies: two rejections and one acceptance.  Nobody of the editors recognized the classics. After I put the results of the experiment online [5], the fourth editor responded with a post in his LJ. He wrote that he rushed to check his mailbox and did not find anything by Korovin. He commented that his editorial policy is to retain all submissions, even those unsuitable for publication, which contain at least a glimmer of sense. Those that do not - get deleted. So the editor did not see a glimmer of sense in the verses of the famous poet.

Calvert and Iredale wrote [4] that their experiment shows “that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.” Apparently they assumed that the things were radically different in 1970s, when the enlightened publishers propelled Naipaul and Middleton to fame. David Wilkening said a similar thing: ''I started wondering if a Hemingway could be published now'' [3]. However, the experiment of Chuck Ross showed that the things had been the same in 1970s.  The experiment reported in St. James’s Gazette showed that already in the 19th century the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent. This suggests that those who have been lauded as talents by the industry may well not be such.

In a related experiment I discovered [6] that Ivy League and Oxbridge people cannot tell the prose of Charles Dickens from that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The latter is mostly known today for the wretched writing contest named after him. In another experiment [7], I found that people from leading Russian universities could not tell the verses of famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin from those of his little known contemporary.

I am grateful to David Wilkening for correspondence.

Mikhail Simkin
September 13, 2014

References

  1. B,  St. James’s Gazette, 1877; http://ecclesiastes911.net/philistines_reject_miltons_samson/
  2. Chuck Ross, “Rejected,” New West, February 12, 1979, pp 40-43.
  3. Associated Press, Aug. 15, 1991, “Publishers Reject Retitled ‘Yearling’”
  4. Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale, “Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile” The Sunday Times, January 01, 2006.
  5. Mikhail Simkin “The verses of poet Bykov lose when they are signed by the name Korovin.” (in Russian)
  6. Mikhail Simkin, “Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens.” Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, 20, 68-73, (2013).
  7. Mikhail Simkin, “Scientific inquiry into poetry.” Significance, 6/24/2013.

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