By September 10, 2007 0 Comments Read More →

Getting It Wrong

In Sunday’s New York Times (“No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov“), David Oshinsky’s look at Knopf’s rejection file reveals that even a “gold standard” publisher makes some errors in judgment:

For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges ("utterly untranslatable"), Isaac Bashevis Singer ("It’s Poland and the rich Jews again"), Anaïs Nin ("There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic"), Sylvia Plath ("There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice") and Jack Kerouac ("His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so"). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov‘s "Lolita" (too racy) and James Baldwin’s "Giovanni’s Room" ("hopelessly bad"). 

Sometimes, trolling through the Booklist card catalog (ah, the sights! the smells! the feel of the cardstock!) we spot similar judgments that, with hindsight, are clearly off the mark. A few years ago, Bill Ott issued a mea culpa for our review of Charlotte’s Web:

The worst part of our review is that we ignore the barn altogether. White once wrote that his novel "was a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung." Unfortunately, Booklist was too busy worrying about symbols even to smell the dung, much less accept it. As I reread Charlotte this time, I was impressed once more with what a marvelous balancing act White manages. On the one hand, he was adamant about showing barn life as it really was, but on the other hand, he set himself an utterly unrealistic goal: to keep Wilbur out of the pork barrel. As a farmer himself, White had killed his share of pigs – that’s what farmers do – but he never liked it, and in Charlotte’s Web, he wanted to find a way to let one live. To do so, he was obligated to mix fantasy and reality, which required the help of a spider who was capable of being "both a true friend and a good writer." Introducing fantasy into a book intended to celebrate the reality of farm life was a dangerous move for White. In saving the pig, would he lose the barn? Will the manure still smell when the spiders become prose stylists? We know now that White’s barn was plenty big enough for both Wilbur’s manure and Charlotte’s bons mots, and we are profoundly sorry Booklist didn’t know it in 1952.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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