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Failogue: Lolita was Rejected by Almost Every Major Publisher

“It should be, and probably has been, told to a psychoanalyst, and it has been elaborated into a novel which contains some wonderful writing, but it is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation … It is a totally perverse performance all around … I am most disturbed at the thought that the writer has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause could be served by its publication now. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”  – Unknown Publisher [1]

“This office has taken a long time to say no to Nabokov’s Lolita which you and I both know was impossible at least for us. Do you want the books back? I don’t imagine so in which case we will keep it for our blank department. But let me know. I wonder if any publisher will buy it.” -Blanche Knopf’s 1956 rejection letter, from the Knopf archives [2]

“We would all go to jail if the thing were published.” Viking Press [3]

“[We] feel that it is literature of the highest order and that it ought to be published but we are both worried about possible repercussions both for the publisher and the author.” – Unknown Publisher [4]

These were some of the rejections for Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, now regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th Century (and one of my favorites). It was rejected by the major publishers in the UK and US because of the risk of obscenity charges. No one wanted to take the risk.

Nabokov didn’t give up and eventually took the novel to France, publishing Lolita through Olympia Press. Nabokov did not realize this at the time, but Olympia had a reputation for mixing pornography among then unpublishable novels that are now literary gems. William Burrough’s Naked LunchJ.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man, and Pauline Réage’s Story of O are a few examples.

All 5,000 copies of Lolita sold out, but gained little attention until Graham Greene called it one of the best three books of 1955. When the novel was published in the U.S. in 1958, it became the first novel since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.[5]

The success of Lolita allowed Nabokov to leave his job at Cornell to pursue writing and lepidoptery full time. Nabokov almost burned his drafts of Lolita in his garden incinerator. Millions of readers should thank his wife Vera for stopping him.

Failogue is a series that brings you stories of failure. Failure from those that showed up. Failure from those that took risks. Failure from those that won.

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Feature Image Source: The Atlantic

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