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The Doris Lessing Novel That Got Rejected

As a writer who hopes to one day have a book published, I don’t find this story very encouraging.

Back in the early 1980s, Doris Lessing–Nobel Peace Prize winning author of The Golden Notebook–submitted a novel to a publisher under a pseudonym, or a fake name. Lessing is an incredible writer, and she’s one of the most respected authors still alive today.

But, because she used the pseudonym (Jane Somers), publishers had no idea they were reading Lessing’s work. Her proposed novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, was rejected.

The New Yorker explains it this way:

Of the half-dozen or so men and women paid to sit around in armchairs perusing new manuscripts, the one who plucked it from the shelf happened to be the youngest, an aspiring poet and fiction writer of twenty-three. He didn’t think much of it, and wrote a report saying so. After a brief discussion at the weekly editorial meeting, the book was turned down.

Some time later, it was revealed that “Jane Somers” was, in fact, Doris Lessing. She had written the book under a pseudonym, partly because she wanted it to be appraised purely on merit, partly out of solidarity with young writers, and partly to free herself from her own literary persona.

The writer of this article, James Lasdun, goes on to say that he was the 23-year-old that read the manuscript and turned it down.

Once Lessing’s story went public, the publisher obviously had egg on its face. Lessing even said the experience was a reminder of how “patronized and put-down new writers are.”

After years of running from Lessing’s work and that experience, Lasdun says he is finally ready to re-read the novel that he once turned down.

Keep in mind, this happened more than 30 years ago. Publishing has changed a lot since then. An author can easily self-publish as an alternative to getting noticed by publishers who received thousands of manuscripts a year.

But, still, you have to wonder how many would-be Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings get rejected every day because of an intern who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Here’s hoping we’re not one of those writers in the future.

More at the New Yorker.

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18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow that’s a crazy story. Imagine the shame and criticism that young guy would have copped! Self-publishing has certainly opened up worlds that never would have been possible for aspiring writers.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  2. Amazing story, just shows how writers are crushed every day by a business that supposedly are experts. I bet it did alot for that publishing house’s reputation. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  3. englandliebhaber #

    You have to enjoy writing and believe in yourself. Determination and good luck. That is what you need.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  4. onsiu #

    This story illustrates how a writer’s reputation affects the perception of his or her work. I am not sure whether a writer that is proven good always produce good work, even if the writer is Doris Lessing.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  5. Oh, this could be the start of a fantastic discussion about the merits of self publishing, and the downside of traditional, but I’m not going to go there. Suffice it to say, good for her.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
    • I agree. Pros and cons of both. It’s very difficult to break in as a new author in traditional publishing. Need a good combination of connection, platform, and a unique story.

      Like

      August 12, 2013
  6. standonthewall #

    Wow. That is intimidating. I too am an unpubilished author and want my work taken seriously. She was a brave soul and I admire her humility.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  7. bookgeeking #

    Interesting story, Ye I think all aspiring writers worry about that. There’s just so many book these days, I always think, “Is there room for mine?”

    Like

    August 12, 2013
    • Always room for more. Just have to separate yours and make it stand out!

      Like

      August 12, 2013
  8. I find myself wondering if that’s the only place she submitted her novel to. I’m also an aspiring writer, and I know that you’re supposed to keep trying and trying until you find a publishing house that is willing to publish your novel. Nearly everyone gets rejected the first time, and a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t like your novel. I’ve heard that, often, publishing houses reject just because they feel it wouldn’t be a good fit for them or because they don’t think it will sell as much as they would like. Personally, I look forward to receiving my first rejection letter because it will be like the first step towards getting published.

    Of course, I don’t know whether it was different thirty years ago. And I haven’t actually sent any books for consideration, so all I know is what I’ve heard from other sources. Still, I thought that I would put it out there.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  9. Gracias. Saludos. Teresa

    Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2013 12:47:33 +0000 To: teresac831@hotmail.com

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  10. deweydecimalsbutler #

    You here about stories like this and like A Confederacy of Dunces, and you wonder if your book will ever have a fighting chance. Then you hear that Francis Hodges Burnett was accepted on her first submission and never had a rejection, and it’s just enough to keep the publishing dream/addiction going.
    I’ll admit, after the 60th rejection/no response, I put my novel on hold as far as the publication search went. My one comfort…my mom liked it.

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  11. This reminds me of a job interview I had the other week, instead of getting to impress the manager I might be working for, who actually understands the work, I have to get past an initial interview with a young HR ‘specialist’ who had no clue what the work involves and seemed to want to prove how smart she was. Didn’t get a second interview, didn’t want one!

    Like

    August 12, 2013
  12. Yikes. How discouraging.

    Like

    August 13, 2013
  13. Very interesting story and discussion about. Thanks to everybody.

    Like

    August 13, 2013
  14. Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

    Like

    August 14, 2013
  15. thanks for this story. clearly, although according to Leibnitz this world is the best of all possible worlds, some of the inhabitants of this world (hardware) run societal functions (software) that are not only less than suboptimal but also negatively tuned towards neglecting or discouraging some of its optimalities.

    Like

    August 18, 2013
  16. I have to agree. Stories like this are really discouraging.

    Like

    August 19, 2013

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