Rejected Classics

Every year publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts. Of these, perhaps a handful get published. Why is this? Publishers might attribute it to the rarity of finding in the slush pile anything worthy of being published. Rejected authors, however, have long argued otherwise. They suspect that publishers are either a) not reading unsolicited manuscripts, despite claiming to do so, or b) are incompetent to recognize talent when they see it.

The rejected classic hoax plays to these suspicions. (There's no agreed-upon name for this type of hoax. It could also be described as a spurious or disguised submission.)

In such hoaxes, a hoaxer sends a publisher a manuscript that is highly worthy of being published since, typically, it has already been published to much acclaim. However, the hoaxer conceals the true authorship of the manuscript, presenting it as a new submission by an unknown author. Typically, the publisher fails to recognize the manuscript for what it is and rejects it. The hoaxer then offers this rejection as evidence of the flawed nature of the publishing industry's selection process.

The earliest known example of this hoax dates back to the late nineteenth century, when a would-be author, frustrated by frequent rejections, sent around a re-titled copy of John Milton's Samson Agonistes to publishers and magazine editors, none of whom recognized it. In recent years, instances of rejected-classics hoaxes have been occurring with increasing frequency.

Neglected Literature
One issue raised by the rejected-classic hoax is the problem of neglected literature. The literary community likes to imagine itself as a meritocracy, in which works of merit eventually receive recognition. However, the consistent success of bait-and-switch hoaxes challenges this view of things.

If publishers cannot recognize the quality of an acknowledged masterpiece, can they be expected to recognize the worth of an unknown work in the slush pile? And even if a work does get published, what if it never finds a critic to champion it and therefore languishes in obscurity?

Critics of the publishing industry have long argued that the small collection of works that have made it into press and received critical acclaim may owe their success not to their inherent brilliance, but rather to luck. The works happened to be in the right place, at the right time, and caught someone's eye. There may be thousands of worthy, but neglected, works of literature out there sitting unread on shelves or filed away in desk drawers, their authors not having been lucky enough to win in the literary lottery.

The Matthew Effect
Critics of the publishing industry also argue that far too much attention is paid to the fame or celebrity of the author, rather than the quality of the work. Well-known authors get published easily, even if their later works decline in quality, and bestseller lists are regularly filled with works by celebrity authors who possess no discernible literary talent.

In essence, the publishing industry heaps rewards upon those who are already famous, leaving talented authors who happen to be unknown to struggle in obscurity. As the popular saying goes, "Nothing succeeds like success." This phenomenon is known as the "Matthew Effect," a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The term derives from a line in the Bible's Book of Matthew: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." (Matthew XXV:29, KJV).

The Psychology of Evaluation
The rejected-classic hoax also offers insight into the psychology of evaluation. Psychologists suggest that we constantly use "schemas" to evaluate the world around us. Schemas are like mental shortcuts, assumptions we make about the qualities of people and things in the world around us. We tend to interpret the world in such a way that it corresponds with our preconceived schemas.

The researcher Harold Kelley illustrated how schemas work in a classic experiment conducted in 1950. He arranged for a guest lecturer to visit his class. Before the class, he told some of his students (randomly selected) that the guest lecturer was "a very warm person." But he told other students that the guest lecturer was "a rather cold person." After the class, he asked the students to evaluate the lecturer. Those who had been told the guest lecturer was rather cold gave him much lower ratings than those who had been told he was warm. In addition, the students who had been told the lecturer was warm found him much more humorous than those who had not been told this. The students were using the schema supplied to them earlier to interpret the lecturer's behavior. Their expectations influenced their perception of the man.

Schemas help to explain why readers at publishing houses might fail to see the quality of an unsolicited manuscript. The readers might assume that unsolicited manuscripts are of lesser quality, therefore they read the submissions with a more critical eye (if they bother to closely read them at all). Their expectation that unsolicited manuscripts are less worthy of consideration then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In other words, a reader's evaluation of a manuscript will depend on the context in which they receive it. They might react to the same work very differently depending on whether it is given to them by an influential agent who showers it with praise, or if they find it in the unsolicited slush pile.

  • Kelley, H.H. (1950). "The warm-cold variable in first impressions of persons." Journal of Personality. 18:431-439.
  • Tabachnick, Stephen E. (1981). "The Problem of Neglected Literature." College English. 43(1): 32-44.

The Steps Experiment (1975)

In 1975 Chuck Ross was selling cable TV door-to-door, and dreaming of becoming a writer. However, he felt the odds were stacked against him since the publishing industry seemed incapable of recognizing talent. To prove his theory, he typed up twenty-one pages of a highly acclaimed book and sent it unsolicited to four publishers (Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), claiming it was his own work. The work he chose for this experiment was Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski. It had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and by 1975 had sold over 400,000 copies. All four publishers rejected the work, including Random House, who was its original publisher. more…

Casablanca Rejected (1982)

If an unknown screenwriter submits a masterpiece to a movie agent, what are the chances that the agent will actually read the screenplay and recognize its value? Freelance writer Chuck Ross designed an experiment to find out. He slightly disguised the script of Casablanca (changing its title, the name of the author, and the names of some of the characters) and submitted it to 217 agencies. The majority of these returned it unread. 33 recognized the script. But 38 claimed to have read it and rejected it, saying the script simply wasn't good enough. One complained that the dialogue "could have been sharper" and that the plot "had a tendency to ramble." more…

The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983)

The Diary of a Good Neighbor by Jane Somers received little attention, and only modest sales, when it was published in 1983. The novel told the story of a magazine editor who befriends a lonely old woman. But when a sequel appeared a year later, a surprise announcement accompanied its publication. The book's true author was the acclaimed writer Doris Lessing (who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Lessing explained that she had concealed her authorship in order to show how difficult it is for unknown authors to attract attention. Also, she wanted to play a prank on critics who insisted on pigeonholing her as one type of writer or another. more…