Spectator competition winners: publishers rejecting literary classics

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3181 you were invited to submit a letter by a publisher rejecting a well-known literary classic.

The authors of Lolita and The Bell Jar (‘an ill-conceived, poorly written novel’) are among distinguished recipients of multiple rejections. And T.S. Eliot famously turned down George Orwell’s Animal Farm (its shortcomings included the wrong type of pig).

Orwell came in for a bit of a battering in the entry, too; Barry Baldwin wasn’t wasting any ink with his take-down: ‘DOUBLEPLUS-UNGOOD’. Many entrants (though not all) wrote from the point of view of a contemporary publisher, and works were often rejected on the grounds that their world-view, lacking in inclusivity of one kind or another, clashes with prevailing cultural orthodoxies. Here’s part of Laura Freeman’s response to John of Patmos: ‘Your “Whore of Babylon” passage is necessarily problematic. Female colleagues were uncomfortable with Ms Babylon’s self-identification as “Mother of Harlots and Abominations.”’ You get the idea. Other strong performers were Amber Burke, Ian Barker and Nick Syrett, but the prize of £30 goes to those entries printed below.

My Dear Miss Greer,
The provocative paradox of your title, witty though it may be, signals the governing weakness of your submission: namely, a reliance on shock tactics. That these are interwoven with the deployment of a scholarly apparatus, perhaps a little arcane for the general reader (as it often is to me), only deepens the problem with ‘confusion worse confounded’. Overall, there is a one-sided emphasis on wrongs done to the fair sex by brutes and scoundrels. Do you not feel that a more balanced approach, and a less offensive vocabulary, would be more persuasive? Lest you suspect me of ‘sexism’, let me add that my wife, though unable to finish the typescript, described its tone as ‘shrill’.


Not to be discouraging, I suggest a thoughtful revision in the light of this letter. After all, the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s has already won its victories.
Basil Ransome-Davies (The Female Eunuch)

Dear Mr Maugham,
I regret we cannot publish Of Human Bondage. The title’s allusion to sexual fetishism caught our attention immediately; its referencing Spinoza did not. Your focus on young hero Philip Carey’s Byronic club foot proved too esoteric an obsession even for our tastes and the chapters devoted to Philip’s vicarage childhood took the Tantric postponement of pleasure too far. You are to be congratulated that many of the requisite elements for successful erotic fiction — bohemian Parisian escapades, medical romance, an interlude among the sweaty hop pickers of rural England — are present. However, such excitements are smothered beneath irrelevant social and economic details and Philip’s florid ruminations upon Life, leaving this reader decidedly flaccid. Throughout, your women are terrible; Fanny’s name is right, at least, but Mildred so entirely lacks sensual possibilities I wonder if you so much as like the gender. My advice? Try, instead, short stories.
Adrian Fry (Of Human Bondage)

Dear Miss Waugh,
Thank you so much for letting us look at Decline and Fall. I passed the manuscript to our reader whose report commends your comic prose style but deplores the general ‘tone’ of the book. In particular, there are passages that are undoubtedly offensive to Welsh people (not that they are noted readers of course) and you treat the serious crime of pederasty as a matter for jesting. Moreover, your hero and his fiancée sleep together before their marriage in order not ‘to make a mistake’ — an attitude that will shock ‘old guard’ readers.
In short, your novel is, regretfully, too modern for our list. Nevertheless, since you are obviously a young person of progressive views, there may well be other areas that we could usefully explore together. May I suggest Quaglino’s at 8 p.m. next Thursday? And a club afterwards?


Looking forward to knowing you better.


Yours etc.
J.C.H. Mounsey (Decline and Fall)

Dear Mr Carle
We read your unusual book with great interest but feel it is not for us. Our legal department advises us that a work which appears to encourage overeating in children would expose us to unacceptable risk, despite the implicit warning given by the concomitant tummy ache experienced by the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Educationists would object to a caterpillar being inaccurately portrayed as consuming such items as pickles, Swiss cheese, salami, popsicles, cherry pie and cupcakes while our Diversity Consultants advise that these foodstuffs are far too culturally Eurocentric for the times. Child Psychology has raised the possibility of children being traumatised by the prospect of insect larvae infesting these familiar comestibles. Also, the technical challenge of making holes in pages would price the book out of the popular market. Finally, may we suggest employing a professional illustrator? Collages are so 1950s!
Frank Upton (The Very Hungry Caterpillar)

While reluctant to decline an author’s first foray into fiction, we trust the following observations will assist your burgeoning career. You demonstrate stylistic competence and tell a good tale. Similarly, you deploy to advantage the ‘situational ethics’ intrinsic to the plot. Yet the narrative feels somehow closer to a screenplay treatment than to a novel. You deposit boys on the cusp of adolescence on an island, where they perforce configure strategies and hierarchies; they awaken from innocence to the quasi-adult regime of their own devising. Two leaders emerge, rational Ralph and loose cannon Jack. The true emblem of power is not the conch shell but underdog Piggy’s spectacles, which enable fire, hence survival. Heuristics for beginners, no less…


Our prime concern, however, is your apparent nonchalance towards potential readership. Not only middle-class lads enjoy adventures entailing conflict and resolution. In future, Mr Golding, add some girls.
Mike Morrison (Lord of the Flies)

No. 3184: laughter lines

You are invited to tell a joke in verse form. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to by midday on 27 January.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments