Jam tomorrow

“We do so love a literary rejection, provided it isn’t our own, of course.”

Counterpoints
George Orwell: Bad marmalade recipe (Cassowary Colorisations)

We do so love a literary rejection, provided it isn’t our own, of course. A rejection letter received by George Orwell in 1946 even made the front pages last month. Unearthed in an archive, the missive and its accompanying notes criticised an essay the author had written for the British Council on the subject of national cuisine. Orwell’s controversial views on milk puddings (“unfortunately, characteristic of Britain”), English pastry (“not outstandingly good”), and fish (“seldom well-cooked”) had not gone down well. As for his recipe for marmalade? It was, ruled the Council, “bad”.

If that rejection was galling, it was far from the worst Orwell ever received. He famously submitted Animal Farm to Faber & Faber only to be told by T. S. Eliot, in his capacity as editor at the publishing house, that the book required “not more communism but more public-spirited pigs”. It was almost as grave as when a London publisher responded to Herman Melville’s manuscript with the words, “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?”

The first thing people tell you when you embark upon a career as an author today is that Harry Potter was turned down at least eight times before it was accepted. This is to give you hope before you get a deal and a boost of confidence once you have one. Discussions of how wrong publishers can be provide writers with an endless source of mirth and have led more than a few to the easy conclusion that their own genius has wrongly been overlooked. Rejection letters from publishers are said to be more generic these days. That is if they come at all. Silence is the modern mode of rejection.

One of the most brilliant book titles of the past few years belongs to Jay Parini’s biography of Gore Vidal: Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies. Vidal was notorious for his literary enmities. So intense was his feud with Truman Capote that he went as far as to brand his death “a wise career move”. There is no longer room for such schadenfreude. Getting published is so notoriously difficult that you can only rejoice with those who achieve it and sympathise with those who don’t. We think even better of Orwell for riding out the rejection of his essay on English food. There are rewards still sweeter than his marmalade for those who do the same today.