A few years ago, Pushcart Press issued a series of three books: Rotten Reviews and Rotten Reviews II, edited by Bill Henderson, and Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard. All three volumes were hugely popular and Rotten Reviews spent some time on a national bestseller list. Now these hundreds of scathing comments are collected in one edition that will delight readers and offer solace to writers who have endured similar reviews and rejections. For example: Jane Austen was reviewed as a "husband-hunting butterfly." John Barth's early fiction was called "a real recoil." Alice in Wonderland was greeted with "a stiff overwrought story." Reviews of Moby-Dick cited Melville for "tragic-comic bubble and squeak." Classic rejection slips were delivered to John Le Carré's The Spy That Came In from the Cold: "You're welcome to Le Carré he hasn't got any future," and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: "I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years," plus many more. "A welcome bit of fun."--Philadelphia Inquirer
A publisher once said of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” by John le Carre, "You're welcome to le Carre -- he hasn't got any future." A book reviewer for the Springfield Republican said of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, "That the book possess literary importance, except as a tour de force, is hard to believe." Of course “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” went on to become a bestseller and John le Carre became perhaps the most important author of espionage fiction in history. “Ulysses” has often been ranked as the best novel in English ever written, which sounds like literary importance to me.
Yet the Springfield Republican reviewer was only expressing an opinion, an opinion that even today might be concurred with by 99 percent of those who read books. Joyce's novel is highly regarded by the literary elite, but the rest of us find it undecipherable and impossible to read.
That publisher (for some reason this book's editors identify the source of negative reviews but not the names of publishing companies) also expressed an opinion, but his opinion translated into dollars and cents. His inability to see the potential in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” cost his company money. Big money. The Springfield Republican lost no money because of the “Ulysses” review. The reviewer didn't lose any sleep.
I was particularly amazed to see how many publishers used as their excuse for rejecting someone's manuscript that this was not the sort of book that was selling now. For example, a publisher told Dr. Seuss that “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was "too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling." But books by Dr. Seuss later sold countless copies because they were different from other children's books. Being different, which is another way of saying being original, is what makes certain books, when well done, stand out from the others. Too many publishers only want books that are just like other books that have become bestsellers, but because they are less original they rarely sell as well.