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

By Melina MoeMarch 26, 2024

There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters
“I FOUND IT extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be,” Toni Morrison wrote to an aspiring novelist in 1977, “but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever.” Still, Morrison, then a senior editor at Random House, liked the manuscript so much that, before responding, she passed it around the office to drum up support. The verdict was “intelligent,” but also “very ‘down,’ depressing, spiritually abrasive.” Whatever the merits of the writing, Morrison’s colleagues predicted, the potent mix of dissatisfaction, anger, and mournfulness would limit the book’s commercial appeal—and Morrison reluctantly agreed. “You don’t want to escape and I don’t want to escape,” her letter concludes, “but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.”

During her 16 years at Random House, Morrison wrote hundreds of rejection letters. Usually typed on pink, yellow, or white carbonless copy paper, and occasionally bearing Random House’s old logo and letterhead, these are now filed among her correspondence in the Random House archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. While many of the letters were mailed to New York, Boston, and even Rome, others were sent to writers in more obscure places; some are addressed to “general delivery” in various small towns across the United States.

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.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the conditions of for-profit cultural production tend to reward the precisely honed, predictable commodity. Literary scholar Dan Sinykin recently argued that the conglomerate era in publishing has transformed the fictional works that get acquired, published, and placed (strategically) on store shelves. “Conglomerate fiction,” which is often genre fiction—that is, more or less easily labeled as mystery, romance, or science fiction—is less distinguishable by its formal characteristics than by its origins within a “conglomerate superorganism” of marketers, acquisitions editors, dust-jacket designers, and many others whose jobs are on the line and therefore have a stake in a given book’s success. The shift hasn’t been unique to fiction. If the conglomerate era produced corporate authors, the studio system churned out Hollywood blockbusters, while creative writing programs shaped a distinctly reflexive MFA style. Even so, Morrison’s warning about the state of publishing in 1981 didn’t advocate a return to the solitary, romantic toiler. Instead, her keynote address called for movement building: “We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers movement—assertive, militant, pugnacious.”


Morrison’s letters are unexpectedly forthcoming. Often, she supplements her rejections with diagnoses of an ailing publishing business, growing frustrations with unimaginative taste, the industry’s aversion to risk-taking, and her own sense of creative constraint working at a commercial press (especially in the late 1970s and early ’80s; Morrison left editorial work to be a full-time novelist in the early 1980s). They sketch a “road not taken” in mainstream publishing, as experimental volumes, poetry, and short story collections were increasingly treated as suspect investments of editorial time and publishing house resources. Current market conditions made for “a losing proposition for the publisher and a hopeless one for short story writers,” Morrison informed one author, and unless they were penned by famous novelists, short story collections were “almost like the publication of poetry”—that is, “practically impossible to make a profit from.” In another, lengthy letter from 1977, Morrison outlined how the economics of a book project depended on the mechanisms of distribution. It wasn’t just that casual readers didn’t buy short story collections, but that the major institutions responsible for generating widespread enthusiasm and name recognition were also uninterested: “Book clubs do not make offers for collections of short stories; mass paperback houses do not make offers for collections of short stories by single authors and so we are left with the hope that ten or fifteen thousand people will go into a bookstore and ask for a particular author by name.” The rejection concludes with Morrison’s admission that “[t]here is no point in my being other than honest with you, you should continue to publish in magazines and if you ever decide to write a novel, I’d be delighted to look at it.”

With other projects, Morrison tried to tap into available marketing networks. She wrote to Good Housekeeping in the hopes they would select Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976) for their book club, as well as to dozens of Black cultural organizations to see if they would organize reading clubs for Angela Davis’s autobiography. Despite being met with middling success, these campaigns—as well as Morrison’s work on the genre-bending Black Book (1974)—fueled an increase in queries from West Coast, experimental voices. Morrison was humane even with the most hopeless of proposals, like those she received from aspiring crossover academics. In 1978, Morrison told a Berkeley professor that the “commercial requirements of Random House are such that literary research and criticism does not figure in its plans.” Still, Morrison’s letter suggests that she’d read the entire manuscript, providing suggestions and the consolation that “unless you have some very ‘hip’ (and probably inaccurate) sociological view to tag on to the literary criticism, it is received with very little enthusiasm.” Similarly, Morrison wrote an apologetic note to Wayne Daniels and Ishmael Reed after passing on a Yardbird reader in 1974, explaining that “the financial crisis that has swept the country has now gripped everybody in publishing and any project on which there is a modicum of risk is heavily discouraged.” She nonetheless offered to “do whatever [she could] to promote it,” asking for copies she could use to “generate some enthusiasm on this coast.”

Morrison was keenly aware that the publishing world, like other areas of business, is a place where it helps to have friends and connections, industry contacts and people who may owe you (or someone you know) a favor. To that end, she occasionally ended a rejection by offering her name as a kind of passport with which hopeful authors might navigate the borders erected by other cultural gatekeepers. In 1977, she advised one young writer to find an agent and directed him toward the legendary literary agents Georges Borchardt and Peter Matson, adding, “When you write to them you may say that although I could not take your manuscript myself, I was very much in love with it, and I’m willing to put it in writing.” She pointed another young radical in the direction of Jules Geller, a former colleague of Morrison’s who went on to work at the Monthly Review, and sent yet another to Charles Harris—a Black editor who overlapped with Morrison briefly at Random House before leaving to become a founding editor at Howard University Press. Even in her rejections, Morrison was building a network of Black writers and editors who might, one day, work to redraw the contours of commercial publishing.


Above all else, Morrison’s rejection letters focus on craft—that is, on the experience of reading a work under review. In one 1978 rejection of a modern Western, she wrote that “it simply wasn’t interesting enough—the excitement, the ‘gut’s, just weren’t there. I am returning it to you herewith.” This sustained desire to explain her rejections elicits a decades-long, fragmentary discourse on style, on how to advance a plot, on when a manuscript’s structure needs to be more unexpected, or—more commonly—on when it needs to be simplified. Readers are needy creatures, Morrison’s letters suggest, demanding both drama and organization, the space and information to make discoveries themselves yet a clear enough path so as not to feel lost. In 1975, she described one manuscript as “put together in a way that made it difficult to enjoy. The scenes are too short and packed too tightly. Motives were lacking.” She forestalled any possible rejoinders about the virtues of avant-garde abstraction by professing her awareness that “the subject itself is about disorder and confusion” but maintaining that “the book should create order for the reader, to help him understand more than simply what happened. He needs to know why.” In other words: Attempts to capture the condition of modern life are no excuse for leaving readers miserable, directionless, or bored.

Editorial advice often boils down to show don’t tell, and literary critics like Ted Underwood, Andrew Piper, and Sinykin have argued that the language of sensory and embodied perception sets fiction apart from other genres, like biography. Morrison’s letters often bear this out. In 1979, she informed one writer that their “story is certainly worth telling,” but they “describe people and events from a distance instead of dramatizing them, developing scenes in which the reader discovers what kind of people they are instead of being told.” Vivid scenery and precise details offer readers room to maneuver, a way to discover a world that resonates. A couple of months earlier, she gave similar advice to a young Bebe Moore Campbell (who went on to become a best-selling author). And, addressing one colorful character who had evidently dropped by the Random House offices unannounced to pitch their memoir, Morrison warned about conflating an eventful life with a well-crafted story. “Your manuscript was no less interesting than you were,” she noted; however, to make it publishable, “you would have to add the artifice (or art) that you said you decidedly would not do.”

What Morrison repeatedly stressed, trusting her exceptional acuity as both a reader and writer, is that writing is a skill of its own—one that doesn’t automatically follow from intellectual brilliance, nor from simply being an interesting or important person. She told one young writer that his ideas were good, but warned that concept was the first and lowest hurdle he would face:

Your work needs force—some manner of making these potentially powerful characters alive and of giving texture to the setting. Giving details about the people—more than what they look like—what idiosyncrasies they have, what distinguished mannerism—and details about where the action takes place: what is in the room, what is the light like, the smells, etc.—all of that would give us texture and tone.

Characteristically, this detailed rejection ends with encouragement, as Morrison told the author, “I hope you are able to work on [your manuscript] to give it the vitality it certainly deserves.”


Morrison left Random House in 1983. In the years leading up to her departure, she sought to make more time for her own writing by commuting to the office only once a week. Yet she continued to read unsolicited submissions. She apologized to one author for responding almost a year after her manuscript landed on her desk. (She found the submission “messy and disjointed” and had “no idea what or where a novel might be,” but nevertheless concluded that “there is such power and grit and a funny kind of lyricism that I have to tell you to try to make something of it”—and instructed the author to send it back to her when she had.) To an unpublished writer from South Webster, Ohio, Morrison observed that “there is a great deal of vitality in your writing and a freshness that is welcoming,” though, she warned, “it needs a lot of work with structure and dialog.” Even so, she promised to “give the entire manuscript a reading” if he finished.

Remarkably, this was an offer Morrison extended repeatedly, to unpublished, unknown writers—some of whom had sent only a handful of what she believed to be promising pages. Unsurprisingly, her rejection notes are a practiced repertoire of graceful ways to say “no” and “goodbye”: “Enclosed herewith”; “I decline”; “Please accept my genuine regrets”; “Best of luck”; “With regards and regrets.” But they’re an archive of Morrison’s faith in and sheer love for the written word—and of her kindness.

Throughout her career, Morrison balanced her literary commitments, her commercial responsibilities, and her concerns about the industry overall. The increasing friction between these likely contributed to her eventual decision to leave publishing entirely. Morrison’s rejection letters represent perhaps her clearest articulation of this tension, often for the benefit of young authors who had no claim on her attention other than throwing a piece of writing over the Random House transom. Such writers, she warned, faced uphill battles to get their words into print. “The material is interesting,” she concluded in one letter, “but not the writing: it needs a lot of work to give it the energy a story must have.”


Featured image: Alfio Giuffrida, Wandtöpfe A-exp11, 2020, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed by the creator. Accessed February 26, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Melina Moe is the curator of literature at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.


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