Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Famous Rejection #78: Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was rejected so many times that it won a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The book was rejected 121 times, which is more rejections than any other bestseller.
Not only did Pirsig face and overcome overwhelming rejection to his book, but the philosophical novel took him four years to write. He worked during the day as as a writer of computer manuals, and then would work on his own writing from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. before starting his day job.
Pirsig’s is an incredible story of dedication and perseverance.


  1. I just found this site! Good to know that I'm in good company. Thank you! I've been wanting to read "Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and there's no time like the present.

  2. False. Pirsig sent out 121 simultaneous queries. Six publishers responded, and he reached a deal with one. Look it up.

    You can't be blamed for being fooled. This myth can be found scattered all over writer's manuals and magazine articles, until it's regarded uncritically as truth. People like inspiring stories.

    1. New York Times article:

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  4. In fact, I believe Pirsig had the book sold before he made the trip he wrote about.

    Many stories of these about writers who stoically bore scores of rejections before becoming a bestselling author turn out to be false when you take a close look at them. I've seen it asserted that Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind received multiple rejections. That couldn't be more false. An editor heard about her and the book she was writing, tracked her down, immediately read what existed of her manuscript, and thereafter spent considerable time and effort coaxing her to finish writing her book and submit it for publication.

    A few more from the list at right.

    Howard Fast's novel Spartacus wasn't rejected. It's a falsification to call what happened a rejection, as though the book itself had been judged.

    Howard Fast, a very talented writer, was blacklisted for his politics, and for refusing to give names to HUAC so they could use them to fuel their ongoing witch hunt. The effect of this blacklisting was to keep Fast from selling *anything*, bad or good. It was a hideous injustice, but it wasn't a rejection.

    What's missing from the stories about Jean Auel and J. K. Rowling is that they didn't just go on collecting rejections until someone recognized how swell their books were. They collected their first round of rejections, then went and substantially rewrote their books, then submitted and sold them.

    The strongly condemnatory reader's report about Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls wasn't wrong. The book really is that bad. It succeeded anyway, but its success had nothing to do with being intelligent, well written, or plausible.

    And for the self-publishing enthusiasts:

    There's a conspicuously missing fact in the story about Amanda Hocking: when St. Martins Press offered her a conventional publishing deal, she said "Yes!" with little or no hesitation. As she remarked at the time, publishing your own work and doing it right takes a lot of hard work.

    Ray Bradbury talks about starting out as a writer, and how he didn't have a reliable sense of how good or bad his writing was. He is so right. I've had the privilege of seen some early material of his that was printed in amateur publications. It was awful.

    What the authors listed on this page have in common is not that they persevered in the face of every imaginable discouragement. The thing they have in common is that they wrote stuff that other people want[ed] to buy and read.

    Stop looking for encouragement in mendacious tales of rejection. They lie. No good can come of that. Instead, get your encouragement from your beta readers. When you start feeling seriously irritated about how often they're bugging you for the next installment, you'll know you're getting somewhere.