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The art of a good rejection letter

Ernest Hemingway, with gun: “a man’s man”. Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty

Ernest Hemingway used to “mutilate” his rejection slips from publishing houses, says Rosemary Jenkinson in The Critic, “and no wonder”. There’s nothing more brutal than a publisher “armed with a power complex, a sense of literary inferiority and a ready wit”. When Hemingway submitted The Sun Also Rises to Peacock & Peacock, editor-in-chief Moberley Luger responded with an “intensely personal missive” on the novel’s shortcomings. “You really are a man’s man, aren’t you?” she wrote. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other.” Of the novel’s hero, Luger declared: “I doubt he’d have the energy to turn the page to find out what happened to himself.”

Some feedback is more constructive. On reading Animal Farm, one publisher advised George Orwell to add in some “more public-spirited pigs”. Another, after finishing Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, replied: “We must ask, does it have to be a whale? For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?” Often, publishers think manuscripts are simply beyond saving: Rudyard Kipling was bluntly told by the editor of the San Francisco Examiner that he didn’t “know how to use the English language”. Still, as much as rejections hurt, “writers should be proud to be worthy of a publisher’s vitriol”. Besides, it’s all part of PTBW: “prove the bastards wrong”.