Following our recent discussion of whether our system of 'anonymized' peer-review should be changed, I have an idea for a little project I'd like to pursue. One thing that would be helpful for me in pursuing the project--and which I think might independently be a little bit of good fun--would be to collect cases of rejection letters, brutal reviews, and other negative reactions by specialists to works that later went on to enjoy great fame and achieve lasting influence.
During a recent trip to Oxford, at a museum exhibit on JRR Tolkien I came across an astonishing peer-reviewer letter of Tolkien's work that ended, "...On that note alone I am afraid this is not even worth considering." This got me thinking of how many other great works met a similar fate. So I did a little poking around online, and here are are just a few famous rejection letters and brutal peer-reviewer comments I came across with a simple web search:
Rejection letter for Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (Nebula and Hugo-award winning work)
Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I'm sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith. Yours sincerely,
Peer-reviewer comments for Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (now considered an American classic)
[REVIEWER #1] Reject recommended
I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
 I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly—“The Bell Jar” with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel. ... maybe now that this book is out of her system she will use her talent more effectively next time. I doubt if anyone over here will pick this novel up, so we might well have a second chance.
[REVIEWER #2] RECOMMEND REJECTION
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
Exerpt of a rejection letter for Louisa May Alcott's Little Women
Stick to teaching.
Here are some other fun ones:
Frank L. Baum (for The Wizard of Oz) – “Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”
Stephen King (Carrie) – “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank) – “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
William Golding (Lord of the Flies) – “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
John le Carre (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) – [sent from one publisher to another] “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
Joseph Heller (Catch-22) – “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say…Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
George Orwell (Animal Farm) – “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
Tony Hillerman – “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
William Faulkner (Sanctuary) – “Good God, I can’t publish this!”
Jack Kerouac (On the Road) – “His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.”
Rudyard Kipling – “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
Richard Adams (Watership Down) – “Older children wouldn’t like it because its language was too difficult.”
Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows) – “Irresponsible holiday story.”
D. H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) – “For your own sake do not publish this book.”
Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls) – “She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro.”
And here are some excerpts of brutal reviews of famous works after they were published:
The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truthalbum (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin's debut album.
[Jimmy Page] is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it...
In their willingness to waste their considerable talent on unworthy material...It would seem that, if they’re to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention.
In concluding this not very sympathetic notice, it must be said that a reviewer with more ample patience and leisure might possibly have done better for Rawls...The book is extremely repetitious, and it is seldom clear whether the repetitions really are repetitions, or modifications of previously expressed views. I have drawn attention to some of these difficulties, and there are all too many others. Rawls is not to be blamed for failing to keep the whole of this huge book in his head at the same time...He is to be blamed, if at all, for not attempting something more modest and doing it properly.
Many years ago [Rawls] wrote some extremely promising articles, containing in germ, though without clarity, a most valuable suggestion about the form and nature of moral thought. It might have been possible to work this idea out with concision and rigour (Rawls' disciple Mr Richards has made a tolerably good job of it in his book A Theory of Reasons for Action, which is much clearer than Rawls' own book as an exposition of this type of theory). If Rawls had limited himself to, say, 300 pages, and had resolved to get his main ideas straight and express them with absolute clarity, he could have made a valuable contribution to moral philosophy.
Early reviews of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason
Friedrich Schultz: "a sealed book" consisting in nothing but "hieroglyphics."
Description of Christian Garbe's review: "The first review of the Critique appeared in the Zugaben zu den Göttinger gelehrte Anzeigen in 1782. The review, which denied that there is any distinction between Kant's idealism and that of Berkeley, was published anonymously, and became notorious...Kant believed that this anonymous review of the Critique was biased and that it deliberately misunderstood his views. He devoted an appendix of the Prolegomena to refuting the review, accusing its author of failing to understand or even address the main issue addressed in the Critique."
Finally, there are some fun public and private reactions by specialists in history to famous works. For examples, although I don't have them handy, I recall reading several Nobel Prize winning physicists publicly condemning theory of relativity as a bunch of nonsense, as well as some similarly brutal condemnations of Darwin's Origin of Species. Then there are negative private reactions, such as Frege's famous dismissals of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, as recounted in Ray Monk's Wittgenstein biography:
Frege's letter must have been a bitter disappointment to Wittgenstein...There is nothing in it to indicate that Frege got past the first page... (p. 163)
After rejecting [an] offer to publish [the Tractatus] if he would pay for the printing, [Wittgenstein] asked Frege to investigate the possibility of having it published in the same journal that had published Frege's article.
Frege's reply was not greatly encouraging...He could ask the editor if he wished to see Wittgenstein's book, but: 'I hardly think that this would lead to anything.' The book would take up about fifty printed pages, nearly the whole journal, and: 'There seems to me not a chance that the editor would give up a whole edition to a single, still unknown writer.'
...After reading the preface, he told Wittgenstein, one did not really know what to make of the first proposition. One expected to see a question, to have a problem outlined, to which the book would address itself. Instead, one came across a bald assertion, without being given the grounds for it...
'Don't take these remarks badly', Frege ended, 'they are made with good intentions.' (p. 176)
It would be really helpful for my little project (and, I hope, fun!) to crowdsource more examples from you all. Do you know of any rejection letters, brutal reviews, or negative public or private reactions by specialists to works that went onto enjoy lasting fame and repute? Some good academic examples would be great, but examples outside of academia (such as in literature, film, music, art, etc.) are also just as relevant to the project I'm thinking about. Many thanks in advance to anyone who chimes in!