The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter

October 27, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 41 8 min read

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.

The electronic rejection letter didn’t arrive on the publishing scene yesterday, of course. My Agony File reveals that e-mail started supplanting typewritten letters about seven or eight years ago. Looking back, I can honestly say that only one of the e-mails I’ve received in those years contained a fraction of the insight in Ed Breslin’s typewritten letter. Here are three e-examples from 2008, when I was trying – and failing – to sell a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 race riot. An editor at Henry Holt wrote: “I just didn’t entirely connect with these characters, in part, I think, because most of them are pretty masculine guys.” (What do you want, I wondered, more feminine guys?) An editor at Algonquin wrote: “I never quite ‘believed’ the narrator in some three-dimensional way. His voice seemed inauthentic to me in certain ways – too overly polished and rhetorical with every fact and figure at his fingertips.” (The novel is told in the first person by five different narrators, which leads me to believe this editor didn’t get past the first chapter.) And an editor at Bloomsbury who is obviously a big believer in brevity needed just 11 words to diss the manuscript: “As much as I’d like to like this, I don’t. Sorry.” Of all the many cliches in reject-speak, the most maddening surely is this: “I didn’t fall in love.” Of course you didn’t fall in love. It’s a book, for chrissakes, not a super-model!

To be fair, some of the typewritten rejections I’ve received were more than a little superficial and slapdash. In pre-e-mail 2001, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote this about a novel I’d set in near-future New York City: “I think this kind of near-future fiction is going to be very difficult to do…until we are more certain of what the near-future might actually look like.” (Say what?) And an editor at Grove/Atlantic must have just returned from a long liquid lunch when she wrote: “I found the action exciting writing skillful.”

And electronic rejection can be thoughtful, constructive, even wise. After revising that novel set in near-future New York City, I mailed a copy of the manuscript to the agent Bill Clegg at the William Morris (no kin) Agency because he had given a close reading to an earlier manuscript of mine. (At the time I was unaware that Clegg had been wrestling with the crack cocaine demon, which he chronicles in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.) Soon after I sent my manuscript to Clegg, he wrote me an e-mail – roughly the same length as Ed Breslin’s long-ago letter – that was striking for its detail and the acuity of its insights. After laying out the book’s strengths and weaknesses and suggesting how I might go about making it better, Clegg closed by offering to take a look at a revised manuscript.

So I know it’s possible for agents and editors – for anyone – to write a thoughtful, insightful e-mail. But hard experience has taught me that it almost never happens. Clegg’s e-mail is, sadly, the exception that proves the rule.

The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 “traditional” titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and “micro-niche” books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they’re swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There’s simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you’re not going to buy.

But I would argue that American book publishing doesn’t need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It’s no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they’re edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer’s imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems?

I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.

But wouldn’t a cutback in the number of published titles hurt me and every other writer? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that a reduction of quantity would lead to a rise in quality, and everyone would benefit – editors who actually get to be editors again; writers who get the attention, and possibly even the money, they need and deserve; and, especially, readers, whose eyes will no longer fog over when they walk into a bookstore because they’ll be confronted with fewer choices and they’ll be confident that the quotient of gems is far higher than it used to be. The only losers would be the companies that pulp unsold books.

Ed Breslin is alive and well and still living in New York City. Since retiring as a book editor in 1992 after a 19-year career, he has concentrated on writing, book doctoring and freelance editing. Now 63, he remembers the Henry Miller Lives! manuscript and the letters we exchanged a quarter of a century ago. He regards those letters as relics from a gone world.

“People don’t even write rejection letters anymore,” Breslin said when I reached him by telephone. “Rejection letters were educational and they often were important for the encouragement they gave young writers. People don’t have the time today, and they don’t have the money to spend on amenities like publicity or parties. Book publishing’s not as social or collegial as it used to be. It’s more cut and dried, and it’s not as much fun.”

With the world becoming more digitized by the minute, Breslin doesn’t expect the publishing industry to slow down, or return to its collegial ways, or even stop churning out so many unwanted books.

“It’s not going to stop,” he said. “It’s going to proliferate more and more.”

He’s probably right. I thanked him for taking the time to write that rejection letter on March 10, 1986, a dose of bad news that gave a struggling writer the strength to keep trying.

“You’re very welcome,” he said. We wished each other good luck and then we hung up.

Image credit: Flicker/dvs.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.