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Not Today, Nabokov

September 13th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

There’s hope for aspiring authors.  Alfred Knopf, who founded and ran Knopf Publishing (now owned by RandomHouse), missed nearly as many gems as he published:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

Knopf, of course, didn’t read all the manuscripts.  But the lesson is clear regardless:  as in blogging, persistence is essential for any aspiring writer.

Of course, praying a “Writer’s Prayer” might help too.
What prayer is that?  Not this one.  Nor that one.   Rather, “Lord, spare us from replies like these!”

It’s hard to imagine a current publisher dictating the sort of response that Alfred Knopf sent to a prominent Columbia University historian in the 1950s. “This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,” it said. “Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.”

Spare us indeed.