What’s it like to be rejected by legendary Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins? Here are two examples, both pretty cutting under that veneer…and both offering excellent advice on writing, relevant still today.
[Note: the redacted names and titles are due to the book’s editor, not me; I’m reading Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock, published (by Scribners,natch!) in 1950. I suspect later editions of the letters contained the recipients’ names.]
Jan. 10, 1936
It is hard to be obliged to tell you that “----”does not seem to us acceptable for publication. The fact that we also feel that it is now unlikely that it can be made acceptable compels us to speak plainly about it.
We ought to tell you at the outset that we think you are both creating and writing too hurriedly, which is not fair to your considerable talent. Your novel seems to us to show the consequences of this in both conception and execution. We were not disturbed by faults apparent in your original rough draft of the first half, because you told us that it was the product of the time you could spare from income-bringing writing in the course of several weeks only, and we felt that they would be taken care of in a more leisurely rewriting. But the faults, we think, are still there, in the second half of the story as well—which we now read for the first time.
The story still seems superimposed upon its background , and not in any real sense to grow out of it. Many characters are introduced who do not touch the story. It is as if you had carefully gone over the local newspaper files of the [eighteen] eighties, made copious notes, and used this background material valiantly, with the result that much of it seems dragged in, and awkwardly handled. Very often, too, your exposition is disproportionate: things really important to the story are set forth briefly and indirectly , whereas some of the local and political detail, of no real consequence in the novel as such, is given the emphasis of exposition by dialogue.
The fact that we were willing to pay you an advance, provisional upon acceptance, is evidence enough that we believed in your talent. Empathetically, we still do. But we apparently over-estimated your faculty for self-criticism. It seems to us now that you must have written this book when you were only half ready to begin it.
If you were to rewrite it now, from stem to stern, we don’t think that it would come to life, even though you might succeed in integrating story and background more effectively. Your right course—unless we are wrong in our opinion of this manuscript—seems to us to be to put it aside, take up one of the other novels in the plan you outlined to us, and then write this entirely anew a few years from now. If you write another novel, we believe that you ought to put it away, once you have finished it, until the impulse that led you through it has gone quite cold; then take it up again and see if you are ready yourself to accept it.
All of this gives you brutally less than your due; you have created some sympathetic characters, and done much effective writing. But we think that your rapid writing for income has got you into an attitude toward your material that you will have to lose….A novel of this kind should come out of long reflection upon the characters and upon the scene, so that the background and the people and the events all, in the end, become part of a true unit. It is a harder kind of novel to do quickly, perhaps, than any other. …
March 6, 1936
I have read over your “----” several times. I do not think it is successful, but it is very hard to explain to you why, except that it has the technical disadvantage of being told by a character within the story. That always somewhat diminishes the vividness and sense of actuality by removing the reader further from the things recounted. But it is, of course, a method that has been followed by the best writers.* Otherwise, I think the story failed mostly in not giving the reader a keen enough sense of the reality of what happened, so that he is moved in reading. This has nothing to do with technique, or structure, or anything of the kind, but only in the ability of a writer to feel with intensity himself, and then so express himself as to make the reader feel in that way too. If this is the case, I do not know of any way of telling a writer how to get the result. Some men can do it by nature, even though in every technical way they write badly. It has been learned by many, too, who did not seem to have it at first, but they had to teach that to themselves entirely, for it is not at all a technical matter. Many of the very best writers of narrative, such as history, etc., have been unable to succeed with fiction. You write very well, but this story is not successful, in spite of that.
It is also true that it is hardly the material for a short story, from an editor’s standpoint, but that has nothing to do with its intrinsic interest.
Ever sincerely yours,
*The Great Gatsby, perchance, Maxwell?