Alfred A Knopf: How the great literary publisher proved to be the great rejecter

Alfred A Knopf was considered to be one of the great literary publishers of the 20th century. But papers newly unearthed in his company's archive reveal a spectacular capacity for scorning the work of great writers.
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The Independent Online

Over a lunch in New York not long ago, a friend who – at the time – was head of a large book publishing house, shared a confession. Early on in his tenure he had received a manuscript which, after due consideration, he had turned it down because "it was so badly written." He had no regrets when it was later taken up by Doubleday. The disappointed writer was Dan Brown. The book was to become The Da Vinci Code.

Stories of writers who have suffered serial rejections for their treasured scribblings, sometimes laboured over for half a lifetime, are legion. Much less often, however, do we get the chance to see how major publishers can sometimes make disastrous calls on manuscripts that later fall into the hands of rivals, only to become worldwide best-sellers.

How delicious it is then to scan today a veritable trove of scornful editors' notes and subsequent rejection letters sent out between the 1940s and 1970s by Alfred A. Knopf Inc no less, possibly the most esteemed, in terms of literary and intellectual savvy, of all the large American publishing houses. The collection is contained in Knopf's own archives held at the University of Texas at Austin, which recently have been attracting belated attention from an assortment of literary historians.

Never mind Dan Brown. While the Knopf archive is crammed with dismissive letters sent to writers who were obscure at the time and remained so for ever after, there are also many others addressed to scribes who could only now be considered masters of their art. Which publishing house in its right mind could not have seen the value of George Orwell's Animal Farm, for instance, or On the Road, by Jack Kerouac? Knopf, that's which one. Add to the list works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Anais Nin and Nabokov.

It is not that Knopf did not treat the vetting process with consummate care and consideration. Over thepast century, this one house has given us works by no fewer than 17 Nobel Prize winners and 47 Pulitzer recipients.

Teams of carefully recruited readers were on hand to peruse each new offering and then advise Knopf on whether they were any good or not. In a tradition that would seem almost quaint in the cutthroat world of book publishing today, the final arbiters of each manuscript were Alfred Knopf himself or his wife, Blanche, one of whom also usually wrote the letters of acceptance of rejection.

Today, publishing houses can barely be doing with finished manuscripts, showing the door to aspiring writers – or writing them generous advance cheques – on the basis of skimpy outlines.

But because Knopf declined to shred its own records, we can return to a different time. Among those to have studied the readers' reports, editors' notes and copies of the rejection letters hidden in Austin is David Oshinksy, a professor of history at the University of Texas.

He has written of his sometimes gleeful voyage through the archives for the New York Times. They represent a place, he says, where "whopping editorial blunders are mercifully entombed," adding that, "Nothing embarrasses publishers more than the public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega best-seller has somehow slipped away."

But don't let that stop us – or Oshinsky. He zeroes in first on the chance Knopf had in 1950 to buy the English language rights to a certain Dutch manuscript. Its readers were not impressed. "Very dull" was the verdict of one, calling the work "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions."

He warned Knopf that it was certain to be a dud because Americans would find the main characters neither familiar nor sympathetic "Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it."

What Knopf duly turned down, was, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. True, the same ghastly mistake was made by 15 other publishing houses and in the end it fell (as in Dan Brown's case) to Doubleday two years later to recognise what it had. The wrenching chronicle of escape from the Nazis went on to become one of the best-selling books in history, with 30 million copies sold.

The system of using readers and editors to assess new offerings is risky of course, because appreciation of the written word is always going to be subjective.

At Knofp, however, it was possible for some of them simply to miss the point of a book entirely, even to a comical extent. This was surely the case with the reader who advised rejecting George Orwell's Animal Farm, on the grounds that it was "impossible to sell animal stories in the USA".

You have to wonder if they actually took the time to read it. Meanwhile, we can only imagine what kind of cloistered fuddy-duddy was tasked to read Nabokov's Lolita, which he simply dismissed as "too racy". Well, yes, it was racy. But rather good too.

Other writers who were later to emerge as literary Titans were similarly dismissed with withering one-liners. Sometimes, one or two words would suffice to cause rejection. A new work by Jorge Luis Borges was deemed "utterly untranslatable", while James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room was "hopelessly bad". A new offering by the Warsaw-born Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer was slung out with the tart observation: "It's Poland and the rich Jews again".

Sylvia Plath drew the short straw after a reader advised that, "There certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice". As for Anais Nin: "there is no commercial advantage in acquiring her and, in my opinion, no artistic". Ouch.

Possibly, you could sympathise more with those at Knopf who failed to grasp the literary explosion that was the script of On the Road by Beat hero Jack Kerouac. Written on a continuous roll of paper all in one, spontaneous flood of creative genius, the book was clearly not going to appeal to every segment of society, especially not older readers. "His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation," the reader concluded. "But is that enough? I don't think so".

Richard Oram, an associate director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, which has care of the Knopf archive, has also taken particular notice of the On the Road rejection, not least because the 50th anniversary of the book's eventual publication fell just last month.

Speaking on National Public Radio, he recalled finding this note from a Knopf editor whom he identifies only as Mr Parks. He found that: "this is a badly misdirected talent and that this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side". Another important Knopf editor apparently added the statement: "I don't dig this one at all."

Knopf is saying as little as possible about these revelations. Would Mr Oram not assume that all of this attention might do the house some considerable harm? "I don't really think so," he replied. "There's been a great deal of interest in them. I think people always like to find successful businesses and people making mistakes and, of course, Knopf did make its mistakes just like any other publisher. But when you look at the Knopf backlist over 90 plus years, it's a remarkable one."

In his perusing of the archives, Mr Oshinksy pays most attention to fellow historians who fell short of Knopf's high expectations. John Hope Franklin, who had garnered good sales for Knopf with his book, From Slavery to Freedom, fared horribly when, in 1950 he delivered another, long-awaited manuscript.

His letter came from Harold Strauss, editor-in-chief. "I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that, while we recognise the scholarly merits of the manuscript, we are deeply disappointed in its trade possibilities. We feel that you have completely missed your chance to write a colourful and dramatic book."

Knopf personally rejected a biography of Sir Robert Walpole by the British historian J. H. Plumb, saying his treatment, while "a good piece of history,'" would be lucky to sell 750 copies.

Of all the rejection letters that caught Mr Oshinsky's eye, none tickled him more than this one posted to a prominent professor of history at the University of Columbia in the 1950s.

We can assume it wasn't this man's first attempt to break into the Knopf list. "This time there's no point in trying to be kind," the letter 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."

We are not told who the professor was and maybe he, at least, got the letter he deserved.

SYLVIA PLATH

'There isn't enough genuine talent'

JACK KEROUAC

'Frenetic and scrambling'

ANNE FRANK

'Very dull'

GEORGE ORWELL

'Impossible to sell animal stories'

JORGE LUIS BORGES

'Utterly untranslatable'

VLADIMIR NABOKOV

'Too racy'

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER

'It's Poland and therich Jews again'

ANAIS NIN

'No commercial advantage in acquiring her'

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