Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Even Amy Tan Gets Rejected

I am up at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, where aspiring authors workshop their writing and listen to authors, agents, and editors talk about the publishing business. The conference has a long tradition of inviting back alumni who have been published, and I came to hear two friends read from their work. (We attended Squaw together in 2004.) They were Julia Flynn Siler, who wrote the House of Mondavi, and Beatrice Motamedi, whose essay appears in the anthology, Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing By Women of the Iranian Diaspora.

Amy Tan was a participant at Squaw in 1986, and, as everyone knows, went on to great fame. (As did many other Squaw participants, like Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch, Alice Sebold, and more.) But when Tan attended the conference, she was like everybody else: unpublished, unagented, and unknown.

For inspiration, someone has posted a stack of Amy Tan's rejection letters. The New Yorker rejected at least two of her stories, and a bunch of publishers, including Pantheon, rejected her book, which went on to become the bestselling Joy Luck Club.

“I am glad to have had a chance to see Amy Tan’s stories and proposal from THE JOY LUCK CLUB,” Pantheon Books Editor Sara Bershtel wrote Sandra Dykstra, Tan’s agent, in November 1987.

“Her work contains many lively moments and surprising images. But finally I felt the distances and differences she seeks to explore, and which strike me as the main agenda of the stories, were too often announced by the narrator herself in exposition, leaving little for the subtler turns of the narrative to accomplish.

I am sorry I can’t see a place for the project on our list. It’s a great subject and I wish I could be more enthusiastic.

The New Yorker also turned Tan down:

“KNOWING THINGS” is written with energy and style, but I don’t think the story quite comes off,” wrote New Yorker editor Frances Kiernan in July 1986. It seems a little schematic, when what you want is a blend of irony, black humor, and feeling. “

But then the New Yorker editor goes on to encourage Tan. “END GAME seems a good deal more successful and also seems closer to what we would like to see from you. The details are fresh and striking, and the writing draws the reader into the story’s world.

I hope you will send us more of your fiction soon.”

Maybe these are above cut-of-the-mill rejection letters. But for aspiring authors, they can offer hope.


Morgan C. Lee said...

I am sympathetic with Amy Tan's string of rejections. I believe my number topped over 100 in a combination of agents and publishing houses. I finally decided to publish through a local firm, Cherokee Books. They are kind of a hybrid vanity/self publishing house. I now have 3 books in print, with a fourth due this month. The publisher places my books regionally in bookstores, aranges for book signings and will be placing my newest book with a local distribution house.
I have not quit my day job but am truly enjoying writing and interacting with my readers.

Daniel Olivas said...

I recently reviewed "Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction" (Chronicle Books), edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez, which is filled with similar stories (there is an essay by Amy Tan, as well). My review is at:

I highly recommend this book. And thanks for the dispatches from Squaw Valley!