Ah, the heyday of publishing – big desks, lots of cash, martini-soused three-hour lunches, trying to appease your government. That was the world in which TS Eliot, then a director of Faber and Faber, was living in 1944, when he rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm for its criticism of Stalin, who was then Britain’s wartime ally. “We have no conviction,” Eliot wrote to Orwell, “that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.” He did, however, say he was “very sorry” to pass on it, as it would likely mean Orwell wouldn’t send them his next book – which would end up being a little novel called Nineteen Eighty-Four.
His decision has haunted the publisher ever since. Toby Faber, the former managing director and the grandson of the publisher’s founder, is now urging Faber to rectify Eliot’s bad call by printing its own edition of the book when it comes out of copyright in 2020, alongside Eliot’s rejection.
Hanging Eliot out to dry seems a little harsh, though – he is far from the first editor to miss out on a future bestseller. At least his letter didn’t describe Animal Farm as “a stupid and pointless fable in which animals take over a farm and run it”, as a very sniffy editor did at the US publisher Knopf. Knopf also passed on The Diary of Anne Frank (“a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions”) and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (“I don’t dig this one at all”).
Pick a popular book-club novel of the past two decades and I’ll give you the rejection count: The Help (60), The Time Traveler’s Wife (25), Still Alice (100, according to its author, Lisa Genova, before she self-published and sold copies from her car). Or anything regarded as a classic: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, rejected a pleasing 22 times (“It is really not funny on any intellectual level”). Or Frank Herbert’s Dune, turned down 23 times before it was picked up by a publisher that specialised in automotive manuals.
As well as providing inspiration for would-be writers, surely no one loves a rejection tale more than a bestselling author. Stephen King collected all the rejections of his debut Carrie, piercing the stack on a nail on his wall like restaurant receipts. The story of Harry Potter’s publication – 12 rejections before the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor spotted it on a slush pile – has passed into legend, and JK Rowling has also shared the rejection letters she received post-Potter while disguised as newbie crime author Robert Galbraith.
We don’t know how Orwell felt reading Eliot’s letter, but we do know what happened after: Animal Farm became a bestseller for Penguin, which would also publish Nineteen Eighty-Four. As the animals might have said, all mistakes are haunting, but some are more haunting than others.