Rotten Rejections: Ironweed

[As this blog probably indicates, or more accurately belabors, I find the folklore of books and publishing endlessly fascinating. I think the choices publishers make, based as often as not on their assessment of the market for a book, says a lot–and much of it not good–about a culture and a society. One of the most famous rejections in publishing history concerns William Kennedy’s magisterial novel Ironweedwhich broke down the barrier to publication of the remainder of his distinguished oeuvre. The serial rejection of Ironweed so exercised Saul Bellow that the Nobel Laureate famously said to Cork Smith, an editor at Viking, that “the author of Billy Phelan should have a manuscript kicking around looking for a publisher is disgraceful.” In the end, Bellow intervened on Kennedy’s behalf at Viking. The rest, of course, is publishing history, as The Albany Cycle as the novels that accompany Ironweed are known, joined the ranks of great American literature.]

“There is much about the novel that is very good and much that I did not like. When I throw in the balance of the book’s unrelenting lack of commerciality, I am afraid I just have to pass.”

“I like William Kennedy but not enough. He’s a very good writer, something no one needs to tell you or him, and his characters are terrific. I cannot explain turning this down.”

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

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