Unpublishable then, masterpiece today

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

When you are trying to get your work published, especially if you receive rejections in the process, it’s difficult to take comfort in the fact that even books we now consider classics, including Animal Farm, Lolita, Moby Dick and Catch 22, were once rejected. What makes it difficult is the fact that creative writing, and by extension, publishing, is not an exact science. What one publisher may consider unpublishable, another may embrace right off. In listening to a number of editors and publishers, various factors have been cited as the reason manuscripts get rejected. Work that is certifiably below par aside, books can be rejected for being too long or too short, too controversial or too safe, too predictable or too dubious—

Publishers can also reject work because it doesn’t suit their sensitivity, the theme overdone, the writer unknown, it’s too mainstream, or in the case of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, too different.

I zero in on The Bone People because I find the story behind its getting published interesting. In the preface to the first edition, Hulme says, “… I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of Perspex when the first three publishers turned it down … it was too large, too unwieldy, too different…”  This was after Hulme had spent 12 years working on it. In 1984, a Spiral Collective, a New Zealand feminist group, published it. The book went on to win the Pegasus Prize for Literature as well as the Booker Prize.

Today, a good 30 years later, The Bone People, this long, different and difficult to categorize book is among the most discoursed literary works in MFA and other literature programs.

It says something to writers whose work continues to receive rejection after rejection, doesn’t it?


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