Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters.

Melina Moe has a new LARB article “There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters” that makes me like Morrison a great deal:

“I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be,” Toni Morrison wrote to an aspiring novelist in 1977, “but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever.” Still, Morrison, then a senior editor at Random House, liked the manuscript so much that, before responding, she passed it around the office to drum up support. The verdict was “intelligent,” but also “very ‘down,’ depressing, spiritually abrasive.” Whatever the merits of the writing, Morrison’s colleagues predicted, the potent mix of dissatisfaction, anger, and mournfulness would limit the book’s commercial appeal—and Morrison reluctantly agreed. “You don’t want to escape and I don’t want to escape,” her letter concludes, “but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.”

During her 16 years at Random House, Morrison wrote hundreds of rejection letters. Usually typed on pink, yellow, or white carbonless copy paper, and occasionally bearing Random House’s old logo and letterhead, these are now filed among her correspondence in the Random House archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. While many of the letters were mailed to New York, Boston, and even Rome, others were sent to writers in more obscure places; some are addressed to “general delivery” in various small towns across the United States.

Regardless of destination, Morrison’s rejections tend to be long, generous in their suggestions, and direct in their criticism. The letters themselves—generally one, two at most, exchanged with a given writer—constitute an asymmetrical archive. On one end of each communiqué is the ghost of a submitted manuscript (absent from the archive after being returned to the sender, although in some cases survived by a cover letter). On the other is a rejection from Morrison, sometimes brusque yet typically offering something more than an expression of disinterest—notes on craft, character development, the need for more (or less) drama. But also: Autopsies of a changing, and in many ways diminishing, publishing industry; frustrations with the tastes of a reading public; and sympathies for poets, short story writers, and other authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

There follows a detailed discussion of the deplorable changes in the publishing world in the ’80s and later (“dramatic, global consolidation”); it continues:

Morrison was keenly aware that the publishing world, like other areas of business, is a place where it helps to have friends and connections, industry contacts and people who may owe you (or someone you know) a favor. To that end, she occasionally ended a rejection by offering her name as a kind of passport with which hopeful authors might navigate the borders erected by other cultural gatekeepers. In 1977, she advised one young writer to find an agent and directed him toward the legendary literary agents Georges Borchardt and Peter Matson, adding, “When you write to them you may say that although I could not take your manuscript myself, I was very much in love with it, and I’m willing to put it in writing.” She pointed another young radical in the direction of Jules Geller, a former colleague of Morrison’s who went on to work at the Monthly Review, and sent yet another to Charles Harris—a Black editor who overlapped with Morrison briefly at Random House before leaving to become a founding editor at Howard University Press. Even in her rejections, Morrison was building a network of Black writers and editors who might, one day, work to redraw the contours of commercial publishing.

Above all else, Morrison’s rejection letters focus on craft—that is, on the experience of reading a work under review. In one 1978 rejection of a modern Western, she wrote that “it simply wasn’t interesting enough—the excitement, the ‘gut’s, just weren’t there. I am returning it to you herewith.” This sustained desire to explain her rejections elicits a decades-long, fragmentary discourse on style, on how to advance a plot, on when a manuscript’s structure needs to be more unexpected, or—more commonly—on when it needs to be simplified. Readers are needy creatures, Morrison’s letters suggest, demanding both drama and organization, the space and information to make discoveries themselves yet a clear enough path so as not to feel lost. In 1975, she described one manuscript as “put together in a way that made it difficult to enjoy. The scenes are too short and packed too tightly. Motives were lacking.” She forestalled any possible rejoinders about the virtues of avant-garde abstraction by professing her awareness that “the subject itself is about disorder and confusion” but maintaining that “the book should create order for the reader, to help him understand more than simply what happened. He needs to know why.” In other words: Attempts to capture the condition of modern life are no excuse for leaving readers miserable, directionless, or bored. […]

What Morrison repeatedly stressed, trusting her exceptional acuity as both a reader and writer, is that writing is a skill of its own—one that doesn’t automatically follow from intellectual brilliance, nor from simply being an interesting or important person. She told one young writer that his ideas were good, but warned that concept was the first and lowest hurdle he would face:

Your work needs force—some manner of making these potentially powerful characters alive and of giving texture to the setting. Giving details about the people—more than what they look like—what idiosyncrasies they have, what distinguished mannerism—and details about where the action takes place: what is in the room, what is the light like, the smells, etc.—all of that would give us texture and tone.

Characteristically, this detailed rejection ends with encouragement, as Morrison told the author, “I hope you are able to work on [your manuscript] to give it the vitality it certainly deserves.” […]

Throughout her career, Morrison balanced her literary commitments, her commercial responsibilities, and her concerns about the industry overall. The increasing friction between these likely contributed to her eventual decision to leave publishing entirely. Morrison’s rejection letters represent perhaps her clearest articulation of this tension, often for the benefit of young authors who had no claim on her attention other than throwing a piece of writing over the Random House transom. Such writers, she warned, faced uphill battles to get their words into print. “The material is interesting,” she concluded in one letter, “but not the writing: it needs a lot of work to give it the energy a story must have.”

It was a lucky writer who got rejected by Morrison.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    writing is a skill of its own—one that doesn’t automatically follow from intellectual brilliance

    Very true.

    It reminds me of Orwell’s comment on Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr, to the effect that it was brilliant, and had enough sheer artistry to make several great novels out of, but “lack[ed] some essential vitamin” needed to make it actually readable.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    but “lack[ed] some essential vitamin” needed to make it actually readable.

    As if it were only a matter of vitamin supplements.

    As the result of a lifetime of reading (and trying to read) novels, technical documentation, pomes etc, I have no clue what such a “readable” additive might be. I reject the very idea as being unreadable (“not even wrong”).

    I can still pick up any novel by Dickens, Trollope etc and read it for the fifth-plus time with pleasure and profit. I also do that with Thomas Bernhard, whose novels drive a lot of people frantic with perplexity and boredom.

    I admire those who, like Morrison (and Unseld, say, as was at Suhrkamp), encourage and criticize – hell, who have something to say at all. For all my reading, I have no advice or criticism to offer. I just buy books. For some of them I wish I could send 50 Euro cash to the author even if dead, as a token of my appreciation (apart from having already bought the book). I have nothing else of value – merely enthusing doesn’t bring home the authorial bacon.

    Thank Goodness for capitalism !

    Edited to gripe:
    I just read Fink’s Krieg by Martin Walser, my first novel of his. It has a Dostoyevsky-esque section at the end (see The Idiot) which is fabulous. I searched for a review that told me more. But the book has been reduced, by every reviewer I can find, to a roman à clef about some boring “scandal” in Hesse/Frankfurt at the end of the 80s. There is an occasional remark about something being “irritierend” in that last section. That is, they didn’t even approximately get what was going on. I conclude that nobody today whose reviews move to the top of internet seaches has ever read anything by D.

  3. Well, you should try Tarr sometime. I’d seen enough praise for it that I made the attempt, but I failed.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    I never know what I might or might not get from a book. I don’t know literature, but I know what I like. That’s why I keep my trap shut – except to complain about reviewers.

    You have read enough Dostoyevsky to share my outrage at reviewers of Finks Krieg. The narrator time and time again mentions books that he takes with him on the train: The Idiot, Tonio Kröger and Michael Kohlhaas. The entire final section in the novel is Dostoyevsky.

  5. The World Literature Today review says “Americans have John Updike; Germans have Martin Walser.”

  6. Stu Clayton says

    Who cares. I’ve read a lot of put-downs of Updike. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares. I read Rabbit Run 50 years ago and have never looked back. Which means nothing to anybody.

    I’ve seen Walser referred to as a “Plaudertasche“. Well, having just read his dissertation on Kafka (available in Suhrkamp as Beschreibung einer Form), I conclude that his detractors are a bunch of spiteful old ignorant so-and-so’s. I fart in their general direction (© DM).

    Anybody who’s somebody is dissed by everybody. That’s what I think.

  7. Quite right too. I didn’t mean to imply anything by the quote; it simply amused me.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    All I remember about Rabbit Comma Run is that it’s not about lagomorphs. I think. The Comma did nothing for me. If memory serves, in this case it only stands and waits.

  9. Updike thought he was being incredibly clever naming a basketball player after something very short.

  10. Stu Clayton says
  11. PlasticPaddy says

    I believe you may be underestimating the importance of the Walser controversy for the writer’s career and the ability of readers to view his writing fairly and dispassionately. I believe, but am willing to be corrected on this, that Walser was associated with a view (not saying he ever held this view) to the over-simplified effect that “Germans should not be expected to grovel anymore for what happened in 33-45. They have done their penance and OTHER NATIONS, NOTABLY ISRAEL, BUT ALSO THE US, BY PERPETRATING SIMILAR ATROCITIES, HAVE FORFEITED THEIR RIGHT TO JUDGE US.” The part I have put in block caps is an intellectual version of what-aboutery, but it struck a nerve.

  12. Rabbit playing basketball.

    “He even holds the Guinness World Record for the most slam dunks in a minute by a bunny.” Who knew there was such a record?

  13. Somehow, LH keeps getting back to rabbits. Spring is in the air.

  14. David Marjanović says

    © DM

    Is that a surprising hole in your classical education? Locus classicus.

    a view (not saying he ever held this view)

    That view sort of defines the extreme right in Germany and Austria.

  15. I just realized that for years I have been vaguely confusing Walser with Max Frisch, even though they actually have very little in common. That is to say I have a very clear idea who Max Frisch is, but apparently only a vague idea who Walser is and my brain has just lumped them together as “post-war German speaking male author who writes novels about middle aged men, relationships and sex”. I swear I read Das Fliehende Pferd years ago, but can’t remember a thing about it.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    post-war German speaking male author who writes novels about middle aged men, relationships and sex

    Walser’s dissertation is on Kafka, and he’s written about Nietzsche.

    I’m now reading Messmers Gedanken [1985]. Kinda weird, short sad-sack-but-innaresting thoughts about inadequacy etc. A mixture of Nietzsche / Cioran / Eeyore was my first reaction, but I kept thinking there must be something else going on here (nothing on the dust jacket), Walser was not a crazy-ass and besides Sloterdijk called MG a “charming book” vel sim. I finally figured out that I can provisionally think of it as “about / as if written by” Hölderlin, who called himself “Scardanelli” at one point (the name pops up once in MG). More research is desiderated.

    Ein fliehendes Pferd is about a sad-sack (!) Gymnasiallehrer who meets up with an old school mate who is your ultimate boastful overbearing blond-and-beautiful vegetarian, along with his wife. While the two men are sailing they get into a storm, blondie (steering the boat) keeps doing ever more dangerous things, the hero pushes him off. Later all is revealed, everybody gets their come-uppance. Catharsis !

    Some reviewer said the novella shows how intellectuals talk with each other nowadays (1977). If that was so, it’s basically what one knows from The Golden Girls. Barely veiled bitchiness.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    For some reason I find myself previously unfamiliar with Walser although googling reveals sentences including him in lists of “important German post-war writers” or something like that where I know the other names. Wikipedia’s description of his shifting political views and affiliations contains the curious, ESLish, and implausible sentence “He was in 1961 the first literary writer to support the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) for an election.” The German source cited claims that he “startet als erster Publizist in der Bundesrepublik eine Wahlinitiative” for the SPD, which google translate renders as “is the first journalist in the Federal Republic to launch a ballot initiative” for ditto. Which sounds more plausible although I don’t know enough about the BRD political process as of ’61 to know if it actually makes sense.

    Thereafter (again per wikipedia) he became enthusiastic about Willy Brandt, which of course then led to a flirtation with Communism. Very literati behavior, I suppose.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    As a general rule, major literary figures seem to be even less sensible in their politics than the rest of us.

    (Perhaps a consequence of all that time spent cloistered in a study, or wherever they go to work on their masterpieces. Squalid garret, whatever.)

  19. enthusiastic about Willy Brandt, which of course then led to a flirtation with Communism.

    “Of course”?! I thought Brandt was Mr. Sensible-head pragmatic fixer. Great shame about the E.German spy in his entourage. A ‘close friend’ of mine at the time, studying German language/current affairs was reading ‘Die Ostpolitik Willy Brandts oder Die Kunst des Selbstverständlichen.’

  20. I thought Brandt was Mr. Sensible-head pragmatic fixer.
    He was pragmatic in his politics, but to the people of my parents’ generation he also was a charismatic visionary, showing that progressive reforms were possible in a country that had been under conservative leadership for 20 years, and his rhetoric was one of not just pragmatic reform, but of an audacious new beginning. After he resigned and was replaced by the more conventional Helmut Schmidt, many on the left saw that as a sign that “the system” would never allow democratic socialism in German*) and some of them were radicalized. Maybe Walser was one of them, I don’t have the time now to check whether the timeline fits.
    *) I remember my mom being in shock on the day he resigned and telling us that “das Kapital” had deposed him.

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