Monthly Archives: July 2012

The art of rejection

I’m into my fourth week reading correspondence between editors, publishers, and writers, and I’ve read so many well-phrased rejection letters that I generally tune them right out. But the combination of diplomacy and sheer wordiness of this one caught my attention:

November 6, 1901

Dear Sir:-

We are sorry to say in reply to your letter of the 2nd addressed to the Riverside Press that we cannot feel sufficient confidence in our ability to make a success of your book to warrant us in asking you to take the trouble to submit it to us.

We thank you, however, for bringing the matter to our attention, and we are

Yours very truly,

Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

Though not a shining example of concision, I remain impressed with the tactfulness with which the letter basically says, “Not only do we not want to publish your book, we don’t even want to read it.”

Citation: MS Am 2030 (214), Houghton Library, Harvard University

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How far downhill has freelance journalism gone in the last 120 years?

Very far. In 1891, Walter Hines Page writes the following letter of acceptance for an article for the Forum:

My dear Sir:

I thank you for submitting your interesting paper on “Europe’s Military Frankenstein,” which I shall be glad to use in an early number of The Forum. I shall ask you to accept our check for the sum we usually pay per article — $75, which is not a large sum, to-be-sure. We shall be able to give you, however, the most appreciative audience reached, we think, by any periodical.

$75—“not a large sum, to-be-sure”—is, wait for it… $1796.34 in 2010 dollars. The letter doesn’t say how long the article was, but I’d guess not more than 2 or 3 thousand words.

ETA: Page follows up with a check for $100 ($2395.12) instead of $75, because he “could not find a paragraph that [he] could suggest [the author] to leave out. What, after all, are a few pages more or less, when you have an interesting paper?”

Citation: MS Am 1090 (1039), Houghton Library, Harvard University

On the uses of theory

Yesterday was very hot, and last night quite windy. I had my window open and the fan on to try to cool my room down enough to sleep. But all the air moving unpredictably through my room kept pushing my bedroom door open, and each time it did, the noise would jolt me out of the almost-asleep state I was inevitably in at the exact moment the door came open.

The third time this happened, I rolled out of bed and started peering around the dark room looking for something to keep the door from coming open again. I’m staying with a friend, so I wasn’t all that familiar with the contents of the room, particularly not in my half-asleep state. No chair to bar the door with. If I’d been more awake, I would have used my suitcase, but I didn’t think of that. In my sleepy and now quite grumpy state of mind, all I could think of were books, but I’d only brought two with me, and neither was all that substantial.

Then I remembered that I’d checked Bourdieu’s Distinction out of the library the other day and stuck it on the dresser after I’d finished with it. It’s a nice hefty book with a sturdy library binding. I shut the door one last time and set the Bourdieu right up against it.

Sure enough, the door stayed shut all night. It’s the best thing Bourdieu’s ever done for me.

From the archives: famous writers edition

From Frank Norris to Walter Hines Page, concerning a letter that Norris’s landlord evidently sent to Page (Norris’s publisher):

My Dear Mr. Page:

The old beast that wrote you I had forgotten to pay my rent will I hope die a sudden and violent death and fry on a particularly hot grid.

The last I heard from him was that he was hoping to sublet my old apartment so that I would not have to pay September’s rent. Very naturally I waited to hear from him again. And then he knifes me.

Well I sent him his damn money to day and may it perish with him.

Citation: MS Am 1090 (792), Houghton Library, Harvard University

From the archives

From the Walter Hines Page papers: WHP records “Typical Tar Heel Specials.” Most are uninteresting, with these exceptions (all misspellings sic. The document is undated, but if I had to guess, I’d say the late 1880s):

Trespasres Notice

Trespasers will take notice that they will be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law by one mongrel dog which aint never been over friendly to strangers and one double barl shot gun which aint loaded with no sofy pillars. Dam if I aint getting tired of this here helraisin on my property.

A notice found on an old shop door in Anson county: The copartnership heretofore resisting between me and Mose Skinner am this day resolved, and them what owe the firm will settle with me and them what the firm owes will settle with Mose,
Ned Barley.

Citation: MS Am 1090.3, Houghton Library, Harvard University