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There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters

Autopsies of a changing publishing industry; frustrations with readers' tastes; and sympathies for poets and authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

Regardless of destination, Morrison’s rejections tend to be long, generous in their suggestions, and direct in their criticism. The letters themselves—generally one, two at most, exchanged with a given writer—constitute an asymmetrical archive. On one end of each communiqué is the ghost of a submitted manuscript (absent from the archive after being returned to the sender, although in some cases survived by a cover letter). On the other is a rejection from Morrison, sometimes brusque yet typically offering something more than an expression of disinterest—notes on craft, character development, the need for more (or less) drama. But also: Autopsies of a changing, and in many ways diminishing, publishing industry; frustrations with the tastes of a reading public; and sympathies for poets, short story writers, and other authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

Most of Morrison’s surviving rejection letters date to the 1970s, a period that saw rapid changes in New York book publishing. This was especially true at Random House: a decade after going public in 1959, the company used the influx of cash to fuel a wave of acquisitions and two mergers, purchasing Alfred A. Knopf and Then, in 1965, Random House itself was acquired by RCA, an electronics company, only to be sold a few years later to a media conglomerate owned by the Newhouse family. Under this aegis, Random House went on to acquire a slew of imprints that expanded the company’s global footprint and generic range.

In short, like Pangaea breaking up in reverse, the publishing industry underwent the dramatic, global consolidation that produced today’s “Big Five”: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. Recently, this would have shrunk to the Big Four had an attempt by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann (owner of Penguin Random House, the largest US publisher) to buy Simon & Schuster from its parent company, ViacomCBS, not been blocked by a US federal judge on antitrust grounds. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter celebrated the collapse of the deal, claiming: “The proposed merger would have reduced competition, decreased author compensation, diminished the breadth, depth, and diversity of our stories and ideas, and ultimately impoverished our democracy.”

Kanter’s statement may seem grandiose, but the underlying anxiety is and was real; Morrison herself voiced similar concerns 40 years earlier. In her 1981 keynote speech at the American Writers Congress, she warned that the business had already tipped too far away from the work of writers and editors, so that “the vitality in the arts which promoters like to talk about is false. Beneath the headlines of blockbusters and bestsellers, underneath the froth of the book fairs,” she averred, “something is terribly wrong.”