I wonder how William Golding felt?

We all know what it’s like to be rejected: your best friend at school goes off with someone else, the one you love says it’s over (and no amount of it’s not you, it’s me eases the pain), you don’t get the job you want, and on and on throughout life, we suffer the knock-backs – big and small – dust ourselves down, and move on.

For writers, rejection is part of the package. Your work is constantly being weighed


and more often that not, found wanting. You didn’t make the shortlist in the competition; your writing group think a character doesn’t work; ten different agents say ‘no thank you’; an editor says ‘I need more context’. And, IT HURTS.

So, I was especially pleased this weekend to read some rejections of the work of famous authors.

In a letter dated September 1953, William Golding wrote to the publishing house Faber, then known as Faber and Gwyer:

Dear Sir

I sent you the typescript of my novel ‘Strangers from Within’ which might be defined as an allegorical interpretation of a stock situation.
             I hope you will feel able to publish it.

                                                    Yours faithfully
                                                     William Golding

Across the top of the letter, an editor had scrawled: Absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on an island. A group of schoolchildren who land in jungle near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless. (OUCH)

I presume that comment refers to ‘Lord of the Flies’!

Less damning but still a rejection was from TS Eliot to WH Auden: Sorry to have kept your poems so long. I do not think any of the enclosed is quite right. I’m afraid I’m much too busy to give you any detailed criticism.

Perhaps the funniest was Eliot’s report on Harold Acton’s poetry  which simply said: I cannot endure this stuff. !!! (I hadn’t heard of HA – apparently he wrote novels and memoir – so perhaps Eliot might have had a point.)

But I couldn’t help wondering how many people have uttered the same despairing comment about Eliot’s poetry?!

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  1. Am shocked to my core, Lindsay. I just can’t let you say that about Eliot!!! I am not quite alone in considering his poetry to be some of the greatest of the 20th century…Four Quartets, Prufrock, Waste Land!!!!! Where would we all be without him?

  2. Lindsay says:

    No, Becky, I agree. I didn’t mean I felt like that about Eliot’s poetry, but that that some people can’t get on with his work. I do find some of his poetry challenging – parts of the Waste Land for example – but some of it is wonderful. Perhaps I shouldn’t have ended the post with such a flippant comment.

  3. Lindsay says:

    In fact, Becky, I’ve now deleted the comment!

  4. Derek Taylor says:

    How about: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” – Jonathan Swift.

  5. Polly says:

    heh-heh … controversial stuff ‘eh Mrs Stanberry-Flynn 🙂
    ‘One man’s meat etc’ ~ I think we’re all at the mercy of whether it’s a coffee day or a wine day ~ no, no, not cynical, just realistic 🙂

  6. Lindsay says:

    It does make you wonder, Derek, how many other potentially wonderful works are being ovelooked now. I used to teach ‘Lord of the Flies’ and it was great for that – a rich seam of characters, themes, metaphors, symbols – but apparently when it was first published in 1954, it didn’t do very well, selling only 3000 copies. It was only when it arrived on the exam syllabus that it became more widely read.

  7. Lindsay says:

    I didn’t intend it to be controversial, Polly. I found it interesting that writers who have since been widely read and recognised (maybe apart from poor old Harold Acton) were not given much credence originally. There was also a comment, which I didn’t include, about Ted Hughes, where an editor had said ‘I wouldn’t take him on yet but perhaps a letter of encouragement’.

  8. Becky gethin says:

    ON Harold Acton….. Before he was 30, Harold had published half a dozen books in prose and verse. Much the best of them was an entertaining scrap of rococo history, The Last Medici. As a poet he fulfilled his intention of pouring scorn on the Georgian poets of the day, already put sharply in their place by his role-model, TS Eliot. His ear was not reliable, and all his life he affected too often an arthritic jauntiness, such as writing of women as ‘dames’ and of some father-figure as ‘an old dad’. Already, however, he displayed one unequalled gift: that of throwing into the air a stream of dazzling talk. In this field he was entirely his own man: not an epigrammatist, like Wilde, not a demure tease, like Max Beerbohm, not a polymath like Berenson, to name only three of the best talkers of the day, but an incomparable builder of cloud-castles, with at his command a wonderful range of verbal modulation, which wrung every last drop from his own cleverness.

  9. Lindsay says:

    Although I haven’t heard of Harold Acton, I looked him up when I saw Eliot’s stinging comment of his poetry, and I discovered a lot of his work had been published. Perhaps that points up the subjectivity of it all.

  10. Caroline says:

    To my surprise I had some sympathy with Eliot having to say to Auden that he hadn’t time to provide detailed criticism. I know the feeling..

    Do I get a Brownie point for having heard of Harold Acton? Didn’t know he wrote poetry but I did read Memoirs of an Aesthete some years ago.

  11. Lindsay says:

    It does take a long time to give good criticism. And definite Brownie points, Caroline, although now you mention the title, I have heard of that memoir although don’t remember hearing the author’s name. Seems ironic that Eliot was his role model and yet Eliot made that stinging comment on his work.

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