Wednesday, November 25, 2015

10 Authors Who Were Told They Would Never Succeed... But Went On to Achieve the Unthinkable

The life of an author is not what the majority believes it to be. Authors don’t just sit back in their chairs and let their inspiration flow all day, living happily and surviving off of coffee and peacefulness – if it were, who wouldn’t want to have this wondrous profession? No, a writer’s life can be tough, filled with ups and downs and incredibly hard work. Yes, this includes the “occasional” rejection (let’s say about one-hundred before the first acceptance). However, not even literature’s masterminds are exempt, with some having been pushed down deeper than others before rising back up to the challenges of a writer’s life.


Zane Grey was put down quite harshly, being told he shouldn’t pursue his dream and simply forget all about it. Nonetheless, the American author did not listen to his critics, self-publishing his first novel, Betty Zane, in 1903. He then continued his publishing career until his death in 1939. Taking on complex issues such as religion and social issues in his books, he became a best-selling novelist in multiple genres, amongst which pulp fiction, juvenile fiction, and, notably, Westerners. He was published in hard cover, soft cover and magazines, with 46 of his books being adapted for film by Hollywood. Instead of giving up after having been brought down, he persevered and published a total of 89 books (more than half of which Westerners). He sold well over 250 million copies of his works, which, over the course of the years, were translated into 20 different languages. If that isn’t a success!

Upon viewing these words, William Golding could have easily dropped his passion for writing and exchanged it for the “few” other occupations he practiced, as, outside of being an author, he was also a schoolmaster, a lecturer, an actor, a sailor, and a musician. Like Zane Grey, however, he did not give up so quickly. After an initial 21 rejections of his novel The Lord of the Flies, he resubmitted the work until the novel’s successful publication 1954. Since then, the book, which depicts the struggle between good and evil trough a wide array of symbolism, has attained incredible sales numbers of over 25 million in English alone. The novel was adapted for film, stage play and dance productions. Today, it is available in over 35 languages, and Golding has received prestigious awards, amongst which the Booker Prize in 1980 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. In 1988, Golding was knighted.

Would you persevere after 144 rejections?
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen received 144 rejections for Chicken Soup for the Soul, amongst which the declaration that “anthologies don’t sell.” Needless to say, the above advice was ignored. As Canfield himself stated, “One reason some people aren't as successful as they'd like is [that] they haven't decided what they want. They are living their life by default and not by design.” Not only did he say these words, but he also lived by them. He knew that what he wanted was to see the book in print, and he fought his way to achieve this result (ultimately succeeding by convincing Peter Vegso of Florida publishing house HCI to publish the first book in the series in 1993). Today, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series showcases 250 titles and has sold more than 500 million copies in 47 languages. (Note: it’s not for nothing that Jack Canfield went on to publish a novel titled The Success Principles: How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.)


Stephen Edwin King, born in Portland, Maine (United States) in 1947, discovered his passion for writing at an early age. He contributed articles to his school magazine at university and wrote short stories, selling them to his schoolmates for a few cents (later broadening his audience to magazines when he could not immediately find a job after graduating from the University of Maine in 1970). Regardless of his passion, however, when King first sent out his debut novel, Carrie, it faced a difficult start. Critique and lack of immediate success threw the author into a depression and later also a drinking problem.  Nonetheless, by 1973, Carrie was accepted for publication by Doubleday, which offered a modest $2,500 (2.349 EUR) investment in the work. This investment paid back, however. It yielded 160 times as much as had been invested in paperback reprint sales, the rights to which were sold to Signet Books for no less than $400,000 (360.000 EUR).



Animal Farm: rejected by 4 publishers
It is likely that George Orwell’s passion rose to the surface even earlier than King’s, with Orwell successfully publishing his first poem in a local newspaper at the tender age of 11. Born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell took on his pseudonym upon commencing his career, as he wrote stories closely linked to his own life experiences. In 1945, after having received four rejections for his work, Animal Farm was published by Secker & Warburg. Again, the work was based off of personal experiences: Orwell had fought with the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists in Spain from late 1936, where he ultimately had to flee in light of Stalin’s pressure on the socialist dissenters. The flight instilled deep anti-Stalinist sentiments, which clearly seeped through the pages of his novel (in Animal Farm, two pigs, one of which symbolizes Stalin, run a dictatorship). A first edition of George Orwell’s work – encompassing 4,500 copies – sold out in only a few days, to be followed by further millions in sales.


With these cruel words, The Diary of Anne Frank was put down. Not only this, but Anne Frank’s diary was branded “very dull” and “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions" by the fifteen unlucky publishers that at first refused the work. The memoir was eventually accepted by Doubleday (the same lucky publisher that saved Stephen King’s career) and sold 30 million copies. In this way, even after death, the young Jewish girl was able to fulfill her lifetime dream of publishing her diary as a novel after the war (even though her re-written version was never finished before she was taken by the Nazis). The novel was published thanks to her father, Otto Frank, the only family member to survive the war. After the war, he devoted himself to working for human rights and the publication of his daughter’s memoir. Today, the diary has been translated in more than 60 languages, and adapted to film and to theater, touching the lives of many.


These aren’t the harshest words J. D. Salinger had to endure upon submitting his novel Catcher in the Rye to publishers. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was branded “crazy.” Ultimately published by Little Brown in 1951, however, the book sold well over 65 million copies. Never far gone from the top 100 bestseller lists, it has been frequently studied in high schools and libraries – between 1961 en 1982 even more so than any other novel in the United States! Reviews are now quite different than before. Paul Engle, reviewer of the Chicago Tribune, commented that The Catcher in the Rye was "emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic, and honest without simply being obscene" I can only voice my own lamentations about the fact that, since the 1960s, J. D. Salinger hasn’t published another novel. As he himself believed and openly stated about 20 years after stepping into the shadows, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.” 


This is what Victorian poet Rudyard Kipling was told by an editor at the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. As you might have guessed by now, Kipling let these words go in through one ear and out through the other. And he was absolutely right to do so! Today, who doesn’t know his works? (Be honest, do The Jungle Book and/or Just So Stories not ring a bell?) After disregarding the kind advice above, Kipling went on to become the highest paid author in the world at the age of 32, obtaining the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. Entirely different reviews started to stream in, amongst which William Blackburn’s words that “[Kipling’s] unrelenting craftsmanship, his determination to be 'master of the bricks and mortar of his trade,' compels respect,” and that “although [his] overall career still awaits judicious critical re-evaluation, the general public—and especially the young public—has long since rendered its own verdict. His status as a writer for children is rightfully secure.” 

Ballard saw his rejections as a sign
of "complete artistic success"
J. G. Ballard’s Crash was so harshly reviewed that he could have easily given up. When it was published, even readers were shocked, condemning the work as pornography. Yes, admittedly, it is not your usual fiction story. With quotes like the following it seems to be all but usual:
“I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." - J.G. Ballard, Crash
However, this franc voice does indeed make the reader look at things in a new light. And, coming back to its rejection on the basis of Ballard being “beyond psychiatric help,” English novelist Zadie Smith claims the novel doesn’t convey Ballard’s own psyche, but instead is concerned with the banality of our – the reader’s – psychopathology. Whatever it is concerned with, however, for many the work has been an eye-opener, and Ballard’s career flourished. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ballard managed to finish a book every 18 months, not once wavering from his meticulous work. He made half a million pounds from book sales alone. What psycho can claim such success? 

Doris Lessing, British author, poet and biographer, amongst others, had a similar view on D. H. Lawrence’s Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover. She stated that “this novel [wasn’t] one of Lawrence’s best, or a great work of art.” Nonetheless, it was published in Italy by Penguin in 1928. The initial print run of 200,000 sold out completely, and only one year later more than two million copies of the work had been sold. As reported by BBC at the time:
London's largest bookstore, W&G Foyle Ltd, said its 300 copies had gone in just 15 minutes and it had taken orders for 3,000 more copies... Hatchards in Piccadilly sold out in 40 minutes and also had hundreds of orders pending.
Selfridges sold 250 copies in minutes. A spokesman told the Times newspaper, "It's bedlam here. We could have sold 10,000 copies if we had had them."
In 1993, the BBC adapted the novel to film. Today, Lawrence is seen as one of the 20th century's most influential authors.

As I’d argue we can see above, “no rejection is fatal until the writer walks away from the battle leaving dreams and goals behind.” Jeff Herman couldn’t have been more right when uttering these words. Had any of the above authors given up after their first (couple) rejections, the world of literature would have been shaped entirely differently today.


So... what is your "favorite" rejection? Which let-down has inspired you to continue to follow your dreams, and do you have similar personal stories? Certainly leave a comment!

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