Famous writers who got rejection letters—with good reason

Kant can be a bit impenetrable.
Kant can be a bit impenetrable.
Image: Wikimedia/ Public Domain
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There are plenty of examples of great authors whose writing was insulted before they were famous. There’s a neat narrative usually assigned to these histories: The publishers and critics made a woeful and highly ignorant mistake, while the author was a misunderstood genius. These tales contain the comforting implication that, if such great writers had their works rejected, then aspiring authors facing their own rejection letters could still be on the path to greatness.

But the compilation of rejection letters published earlier this week by the blog Philosophers’ Cocoon raises another possible interpretation: that some of these great, hallowed authors aren’t actually that good. Rather than being uninformed fools, perhaps those who critiqued these now-unquestionable works were, in fact, right.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, for example, was not heralded as the gospel of modern philosophy it is considered now when the work was first published in the 1780s. In fact, Kant’s philosophical colleagues at the time complained about his impenetrable writing. Johann Shultz, professor of mathematics in Königsberg, wrote that Critique, “is even for the greatest part of the academic community just as much as if it were composed exclusively of hieroglyphics.” He’s got a point.

John Rawls was another great philosopher who didn’t impress much upon publication. As Philosophers’ Cocoon notes, an early review published in Philosophical Quarterly called Rawls’ 1971 book A Theory of Justice “extremely repetitious,” noting that “it is seldom clear whether the repetitions really are repetitions, or modifications of previously expressed views.” Today, Rawls’ writing is placed on far too high a pedestal to be subjected to such critiques. But that analysis is not wrong. Indeed, the first five comments under the Philosophers’ Cocoon blog post are from readers expressing relief that they can now safely assert that Rawls is a pretty dry writer.

Philosophers aren’t the only famous writers to receive valid early criticism; plenty of fiction today deemed untouchably great met with substantive critiques before publication. George Orwell’s Animal Farm inspires widespread awe, and any publisher who rejected the book might be considered a veritable buffoon. And yet, one of the book’s many rejectors was a pretty good writer himself: T. S. Eliot. The poet was working as a director at Faber & Faber at the time, and did not see fit to publish Orwell’s book.

Eliot made an excellent point about the failings of the book central argument in a letter to Orwell: “…your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” Well, quite! Today, middle schoolers who make a similar case might be told they just don’t get it. But Eliot knew his writing and, honestly, if Orwell wanted to critique communism, why did he create such damn clever pigs?

Of course, these critics are not right in the sense that it would be better had these books never been published at all. Personally, I enjoy Animal Farm and, with the help of many secondary texts, think Kant’s work is mind-blowingly brilliant. It’s just that they’re not wrong either. Most, if not all, of the most revered books can be read as highly flawed.

One of the many problems with the philosophical and literary canons is that they create an impression of an objective hierarchy of books, and a crystallized history of thought. All “great writers” have talent, but they’re turned into untouchable intellects when scholarly opinion anoints them as geniuses and then that narrative hardens into an unquestioned truth over the centuries. But in a racist, patriarchal society, the beneficiaries of canonicalization tend to be white men, while women and people of color are left by the wayside. Descartes, for example, wasn’t seen as a particularly groundbreaking philosopher in his own time—the notion of Descartes as the founder of modern thought was largely created by 19th century historians. Meanwhile a female philosopher of his era, Teresa of Ávila, has largely been forgotten.

The tide of literary opinion can turn against or elevate anyone at a whim. And, just as there are great books that don’t get deserved criticism, there are many overlooked books that could potentially be revered as brilliant, if only they were praised by the right people. A few years ago, author Ian McEwan publicly praised a then-little-known 1965 novel Stoner, and it became an unexpected and belated bestseller. There are hundreds of other brilliant novels, just like Stoner, that have not yet been rediscovered. If they were, perhaps the current greatest echelon of writers would be pushed down to second tier.

All great writers can be questioned and critiqued, and disagreeing with the mainstream view of any one canonical text is not a sign of ignorance. Except when it comes to Samuel Beckett, of course. Anyone who dislikes Beckett is an absolute idiot.