17 UK Publishers Reject Disguised Jane Austen
July 19, 2007 10:35 AM   Subscribe

"It seems like a really original and interesting read." It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is one of literature's most famous, wittily kicking off one of the most beloved of all classics. And yet, 17 British publishers failed to recognize it and rejected the manuscript when Jane's name and the title were changed. What happens when the gatekeepers of literature are illiterate?
posted by CunningLinguist (124 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
This also happened last year, when British publishers got caught in a newspaper stunt and rejecting en mass V.S. Naipaul's Booker Prize-winning "In a Free State." Naipaul is one thing. But Jane Freaking Austen?
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:36 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


They probably do the same thing music lovers do when they realize they walked past Joshua Bell playing in a subway: They slap their forehead, acknowledge they've been pranked, and get back to work.
posted by ardgedee at 10:37 AM on July 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


No, wait. They put up with the screams of thousands of bloggers who insist they could never have made such an inadvertently crass error. My bad.
posted by ardgedee at 10:39 AM on July 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


Probably because people don't generally look to buy books written in that style nowadays. Language (and taste in books) evolves. They are businesses and Jane Austen is no Tom Clancy or Dan Brown.
posted by longbaugh at 10:42 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


It sounds like these were generic rejection slips, so I'm guessing that some of the publishers did recognize the work but just didn't bother to write special "you plagiarizer" rejection notes.

I used to temp at a publishing company sending out rejection slips. My favorite reject was a children's story where a mean stag molested his fawn daughter and was sentenced by a wise owl judge to be banished from their forest of peace until he could control himself.

Also, there were illustrations.
posted by lemuria at 10:43 AM on July 19, 2007 [16 favorites]


I've never read it. Am I missing a good book?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:45 AM on July 19, 2007


Publishers and agents work to predict and determine a market. Works then are able to become a classic. How does what Austen wrote fit in with what contemproary authors are submitting? Why would a contemporary agent choose it over something more fitting in the current book market?

Also, most submissions are just given a cursory once-over, if that, before being rejected. Probably lots of other incredible books were rejected that week too; plus tons and tons of utter crap.
posted by hermitosis at 10:45 AM on July 19, 2007


This is sweeth, soothing balm to the creative artist, at least to this aspiring essayist who only yesterday received a kind but terse, "You work, though interesting, does not meet our current needs."

Yeah, that's right. History will eventually prove their blindness!
posted by John of Michigan at 10:45 AM on July 19, 2007


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is one of literature's most famous

It's good, but it's no first-line-from-"Notes From the Underground".
posted by lumpenprole at 10:45 AM on July 19, 2007


sweeth?

Hmm, maybe the problem is my spelling, not the fact that I can't write my way out of a paper bag.

Yeah, that's gotta be it.
posted by John of Michigan at 10:46 AM on July 19, 2007


I'll admit that I was all "pranks like that prove nothing and are rude to boot" about the Joshua Bell thing, but fuckity fuck, this is Jane Austen we're talking about. This makes me sad. And angry, really, really angry in a comedy of manners kind of way.
posted by OmieWise at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2007


I'd reject it too in the same way that a modern music publisher would reject a Little Richard song. Our culture has already consumed it.
posted by vacapinta at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


Not just illiterate, but apparently didn't even read the book. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most remade books out there--reading it in 2007 wouldn't make one say "original".

That said, how many of these rejections were form letters sent from slush-pile skimmers?
posted by DU at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2007


Yeah, because Fitz Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are such common names that no literary professional would blink an eye, should they see the first few pages of a manuscript featuring them.
posted by headspace at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2007


"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." - Mark Twain
posted by Riki tiki at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


Yea, publishers are always clamoring for unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors. These were probably read in their entirety and rejected by upper management at the various publishing houses. It is not surprising that the agents rejected the work; it was written in a different century and would not sell well today.

If Jane Austen were alive today, she would write in a contemporary voice and she would GET A FUCKING AGENT.
posted by Mister_A at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


I AM A SICK MAN.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my web site is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my web site, and do not know for certain what ails it. I don't consult tech support for it, and never have, though I have a respect for technology and tech geeks. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect technology, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult tech support from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" tech support by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult tech support it is from spite. My web site is bad, well -- let it get worse!

I have been going on like that for a long time -- eight years.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:51 AM on July 19, 2007 [7 favorites]


First, how does he know that all the publishers actually read any of what he submitted?

Second, if you were an overworked underling in publishing and someone sent you a few chapters of Austen, would you bother composing an individualised reply that showed that you'd realised it was Austen, or just fire off the standard rejection letter?

This seems one of these standard blogger-outrage-fodder things.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


(For the sarcasm impaired: agents and publishers don't tend to tell authors to fuck off, even when they need to be told to fuck off. Not for us, perhaps someone else will be able to enthusiastically represent, just didn't speak to me, etc., etc., etc. Just because they don't tell you you're a no-account plagiarizing ass doesn't mean they don't recognize it. They just don't want to give you a reason to argue with them. See also, Slushkiller.)
posted by headspace at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2007


Another vote for the likelihood that the submissions were triaged out by very low-level assistant editors who thought the language too archaic to become big sellers.
posted by googly at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2007


What happens when the gatekeepers of literature are illiterate?

Harry Potter [and the Foreboding Titles of Magickally Goofy Doom] become best sellers the world over?

Half a dozen times?

Disclaimer: I like "children's books", and I've read most of the books and have enjoyed them as entertainment. But they're no A Wrinkle in Time or Chronicles of Narnia. They're a few notches above R.L. Stine's Goosebumps.
posted by loquacious at 10:53 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


How is the fact that the publishers (and agents, for those of you screaming GET A FUCKING AGENT) probably rejected the manuscripts without reading them supposed to be some kind of point in their favor?
posted by transona5 at 10:55 AM on July 19, 2007


to jump on the children's book thing: It's not quite Wrinkle or Narnia, but the recently-published The Mysterious Benedict Society is at least a cut above Harry Potter, if not two. Not that I object to kid's reading HP.
posted by DU at 10:56 AM on July 19, 2007


Publishers aren't literary historians. Great canonical literature of the past is completely irrelevant to what they do. Their job is to pick the next bestseller, and they're not even necessarily good at that: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected twelve times.

Let me propose an alternate situation: A Creative Writing professor assigns students to write historical fiction. As a prank, a student hands in the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, and the professor gives it a C-minus. That would be an entertaining scandal. This is not.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:56 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


The point is that you don't have to read the whole thing to realize that it is unsellable and/or the product of plagiarism. If you realize that it is plagiarism, you don't have to write a lengthy epistle chastising the plagiarist, either. You just send the form letter.
posted by Mister_A at 10:57 AM on July 19, 2007


I think lemuria's got it. He received standard rejection letters, and it's silly to quote them as if they had meaning or were relevant to "his" manuscript in particular. I'm guessing that it was probably recognized by many who read it. Sending a standard rejection letter is the easiest and probably wisest response when dealing with a potential nutbag, which is probably how he was perceived. Why take the time to write a letter letting him know that his plagiarism was recognized? He's already wasted the time of the unlucky, poorly-paid stiff who unearthed his gem in the slushpile.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:00 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I bet it was doing great until it got to marketing.
posted by The Straightener at 11:00 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe they didn't read them at all, but I doubt it. I have submitted unsolicited manuscripts and had them accepted after they went up the ladder from the minions to the publisher, and my opinion is that they do at least read a few sentences of each submission before sending out that rejection form letter (and I have received plenty of rejection letters, too).

That being said, shouldn't someone should have realized the first sentence sounded familiar, if outdated.

I can't believe no one Googled it. Or am I the only OCD person out there who would have done this?

Seconding loquacious on the Disclaimer.
posted by misha at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


None of this should be construed as "We heart publishers and think they are inerrant in their choices."
posted by Mister_A at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2007


Yeah CL this would have been much more interesting if it had been: "We handed Austen personally to 17 well-known editors and asked them what they though of this novel."

As it is the stunt was staged by some guy trying to prove the point that his novel too is an unrecognized Austen. Kind of lame.
posted by vacapinta at 11:05 AM on July 19, 2007


The only reason Jane Austen got published is because the publisher had already rejected a thinly disguised version of The Pilgrim's Progress.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 11:06 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


See? They just don't recognise my greatness!

Of course theres always hope for Mefites: Interweb blowhard Warren Ellis just got his novel published, and from reading the first chapter that looks fucking terrible.
posted by Artw at 11:07 AM on July 19, 2007


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Frankly, although that may be a classic, even canonical, opening sentence, it was written almost 200 years ago, and sounds like it.

Anyone writing like that today is too self-consciously "literary" and archaic for a publisher to take them seriously.

Even in the UK.
posted by dersins at 11:08 AM on July 19, 2007


I've never read it. Am I missing a good book?

No.
posted by tkchrist at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


Another vote for the likelihood that the submissions were triaged out by very low-level assistant editors who thought the language too archaic to become big sellers.

Right, and let's point out that if someone today wrote in the literary style of that era and did not already have a hugely established name, then it would be extremely difficult for a publshing house, especially a big one, to market it.

Publishing houses are a literary business, but they're still a business, right?
posted by lumpenprole at 11:10 AM on July 19, 2007


Funny you should be quoting Twain in this context. He was not exactly her biggest fan.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 11:11 AM on July 19, 2007 [5 favorites]


Jane Austen is no Tom Clancy or Dan Brown.

Actually, it's the other way around.
posted by blucevalo at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not even an original stunt. Back in the '70s someone tried pretty much the same thing with pieces of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "The Painted Bird", and with pretty much the same results. Even the novel's actual publisher rejected the excerpts without even recognizing it as being from within their catalog. Some discussion of that incident here -> http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol2/issue1/ffakes.htm

Aside from Jane Austen's greater historical prominence, I don't see much of a difference, but Kosinski was quite prominent in the literary world at that time.
posted by hwestiii at 11:13 AM on July 19, 2007


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"
-That's the most memorable first line of a literary work; Jane Austen and your favorite author suck.
posted by nomisxid at 11:14 AM on July 19, 2007


So publishers toss her work in the trash can. Jane Austen can take solace in the fact that a new movie (with Anne Hathaway in the titular role) is coming out next month that will revivify her reputation. All is right with the world.
posted by blucevalo at 11:16 AM on July 19, 2007


There is nothing new under the sun.
posted by mosk at 11:17 AM on July 19, 2007


Did Jane Austen have an easy time getting her books published when real time was going on back there in 1800 or whenever?
posted by bukvich at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2007


So, styling himself Alison Laydee - a play on Austen's nom de plume A Lady - he typed up chapters from three of her most famous books. First he sent off Northanger Abbey, calling it "Susan" - a title Austen had used for an early draft - and changing the name of the heroine from Catherine Morland to Susan Maldorn.

See the thing is "Morland" really rolls off the tongue, while "Maldorn" sounds awful. "Alison Laydee" also sounds awful. This guy has no sense of tone, it's no wonder he couldn't find a publisher for his own work.
posted by delmoi at 11:20 AM on July 19, 2007


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"
-That's the most memorable first line of a literary work;


I respectfully disagree.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

QE-motherfuckin'-D.
posted by dersins at 11:20 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


As it turns out, Aristotle and Charles Dickens and James Joyce don't just add a dash of class to a publishing house's list. They're serious money-makers.

Take Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It sold 110,000 copies last year [2002], according to Nielsen BookScan, which excludes academic sales from its calculations—which means these numbers aren't inflated by students who have no choice but to buy Austen.

posted by jamjam at 11:20 AM on July 19, 2007


That's the most memorable first line of a literary work.

Just as memorable:

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

Or this:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
posted by blucevalo at 11:21 AM on July 19, 2007


Back in the '70s someone tried pretty much the same thing with pieces of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "The Painted Bird", and with pretty much the same results.

Probably more famously, in the 80s somebody retitled Casablanca to Everybody Comes To Rick's and sent it out to movie studios. Same results there too.
posted by fungible at 11:22 AM on July 19, 2007


I'm an English major, I read Pride and Prejudice, but I sure don't recall the first line.

And honestly, Jane Austen bores the shit out of me, as does most 18th and 19th century literature.
posted by SansPoint at 11:26 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


addendum to above comment:

Wake me when a publisher doesn't recognize "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
posted by SansPoint at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2007


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"
-That's the most memorable first line of a literary work;


I respectfully disagree.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

QE-motherfuckin'-D.
Meh, God was a one-hit wonder. Dickens was churning out classics.
posted by djgh at 11:30 AM on July 19, 2007


Pardon, but were these just submitted without agent intervention to publishing houses? I can tell you from professional experience that they likely didn't get read and automatically received 'slush fund no thank you' letters from assistants just out of college... if even an assistant read it at all. These days most publishers have a policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Too many headaches. I can't speak for agents, but likely those were by assistants as well.

As for the UK publisher of HP, I know him, he's a great guy, never has a moment of peace and was very unlikely the person who actually responded even though he name might have been on the letter... not to mention he's a **children's publisher** so what would he want with an adult book fashioned after Jane Austin?

This is ridiculous and a crass attempt at duping or showing how stupid the publishing world is as a whole without actually understanding how the publishing world works.
posted by eatdonuts at 11:30 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


I agree with Twain— Austen seems to exist only as the Homo Erectus of chick lit and a weeder to convince otherwise bright children that, no, they don't actually like reading or English class all that much.
posted by klangklangston at 11:32 AM on July 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Hi, a real, live literary agent here. Yes, I get wacky stuff all the time -- ill-suited for me, incomprehensible, clearly plagiarized, or just batshitinsane -- and it's easier and less risky just to reply with my standard polite, respectful-but-firm rejection.
posted by twsf at 11:32 AM on July 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Their blog says everything I would, better. It's much better written than the article itself.

I like the dropping of the names JK Rowling and Harry Potter several times in such a short article.
posted by Tehanu at 11:33 AM on July 19, 2007


And here are some great first lines from literature if we'd like to start arguing about something else for a while...
posted by twsf at 11:34 AM on July 19, 2007


A copywriter at Penguin has posted his thoughts about this on the Penguin Blog.
posted by garrett at 11:35 AM on July 19, 2007


Ashton Kutcher wishes he could get someone punk'd this bad.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 11:51 AM on July 19, 2007


Thanks, garrett. The copywriter at Penguin says all that needed to be said.

Next up: Is it really hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk? Jimmy, take a photographer and go find out! We've got column inches to fill!
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on July 19, 2007


Poop.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:12 PM on July 19, 2007


Dear publisher: Let me pitch a book at you. It is largely autobiographical, but also contains an extended exposition of a political movement that I suspect will be very popular in this country soon, and perhaps worldwide. I have a dynamite marketing gimmick -- get this: It was written while I was in prison for political activism! We know the public digs the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Nelson Mandela; I tells you, they're gonna go just apey for my stuff.

I also detail an international plot, which I know is very big right now, and outline steps that can be made to protect ourselves from the schemes of foreigners and domestic schemers -- shades of Dan Brown, eh? And we're talking about an evil plot that dates all the way back to the Bible, just like in the Da Vinci code! Dig it!

Get back to me soon on this, baby.

A. Hitler
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Canonical is difficult to define, but one measure is if it's worth re-reading. The Bible and Shakespeare and Dante for example seem to have endless permutations, depth. The other factor is aesthetic value, Jane Austin created a new aesthetic which has been very influential. So influential that Austin may seem boring because we've seen it all before.
posted by stbalbach at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I had a dream about this. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:22 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


My favorite first line:

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
- Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers
posted by nasreddin at 12:26 PM on July 19, 2007


Getting published is like winning a lottery that you have to write a novel to enter. Accept it. Move on.
posted by ewkpates at 12:27 PM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


My two favorite first lines:

"This book is written in the belief that people like to know precisely what is eating them."
--James Clark, Man is the Prey

"I probably would never have become America's leading fireater if Flamo the Great hadn't happened to explode that night in front of Krinko's Great Combined Carnival Side Shows."
--Dan Mannix, Step Right Up!

Both nonfiction, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:31 PM on July 19, 2007


Great ones, nasreddin and Astro Zombie. Wow.
posted by blucevalo at 12:44 PM on July 19, 2007


Publishers and agents yesterday tried to explain what had gone wrong. A spokesman for Christopher Little said: "Our letter was a polite note declining representation and provided a standard response. Our internal notes did recognise similarities with existing published works and indeed there were even discussions about possible plagiarism."

That, to me, is more damning than a simple generic rejection letter, which I can certainly understand sending off whether or not you recognized the work. If you've already "recognized similarities with existing published works," how is it that you've not recognized the published work it's similar to?

I agree with dersins, anyway. I love Austen, but if I were a reader and this were presented to me as contemporary literature, if the opening line didn't ring a bell I'd probably assume it was a historical romance, and maybe even decide that the compound sentences were too florid a style for today's audience.
posted by Miko at 12:51 PM on July 19, 2007


UK PUBLISHERS IN HISTORICAL-CONTEXT-MATTERING SHOCK!
posted by aaronetc at 12:56 PM on July 19, 2007


Best first line in fiction:

"I'm a student at a mid western university. I never believed any of these stories were true. Until it happened to me. There I was wondering what to do with my Saturday night and my nine inch cock when in walked the most gorgeous two women I have..."
posted by tkchrist at 1:13 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


When you write creatively and try to be serious about it yourself, you can find yourself to be ashamed sometimes when you read a work that is agreed to have bucketloads of worth and talent in it, and yet remain entirely unmoved.

I've felt that sense of shame about Austen. Can't get into her at all. I kept a lot of books I read for university, even though I knew that some of them weren't enjoyable for me then, but would be years later. I sold my Austen books back to the uni bookshop straightaway. If the publishers didn't like it, I'm not surprised - we can't all like everything.

But am I the only one who ever so slightly suspects that some of the publishers may have noticed that it was at the very least very Austenesque, and let it go because they thought it was a bad try at a mashup?
posted by paperpete at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2007


Next up: Is it really hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk? Jimmy, take a photographer and go find out! We've got column inches to fill!

My local tv news used to do a segment on that every summer. Actually they probably still do-- I stopped watching them, and now I live somewhere else.

Answer: Yes.
posted by Tehanu at 1:16 PM on July 19, 2007


tkchrist - I believe what you have there is actually an opening paragraph.
posted by Artw at 1:22 PM on July 19, 2007


Publishing agents are tasked with finding new hotness. I don't know if Jane Austen, or even THE NEXT JANE AUSTEN constitutes new hotness in any way.

I've read Pride & Prejudice twice and I've also seen the BBC miniseries. I don't know if I would recognize the manuscript among hundreds of others if it was missing the first line, the character names were changed, and I was only looking at it very quickly -- so quickly that I was able to conclude from a glance at the language and boring-sounding plot summary that such a book wouldn't really sell.
posted by Shakeer at 1:26 PM on July 19, 2007


TK— I believe what you mean is "Dear Penthouse, I never thought it would happen to me..."
posted by klangklangston at 1:26 PM on July 19, 2007


Favorite first line:
"It was a bright, defrosted, pussy willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey."

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins.
posted by WhipSmart at 1:33 PM on July 19, 2007


The copywriter at Penguin says all that needed to be said

Maybe so, but it's an odd piece: the tone suggests he's debunking the implied criticism, but every word he says confirms it.
posted by Phanx at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2007


"17 British publishers failed to recognize it and rejected the manuscript when Jane's name and the title were changed."

Bah. This should read "17 British publishers decided it wasn't worth their time to deal with this person's jackassery."

Publishers aren't obliged to respond to every idiot stunt like this one. A form rejection (or no reply) does not imply the readers at the publishers didn't recognize the work was plagiarized from Austen; it implies they decided it wasn't in their interest to respond more than "thanks, no." When original work gets rejected it usually gets a form letter; what thinking suggests that this stunt deserves any better attention?

What this is really about is the erstwhile writer, having previously been rejected, needed to do something to assure himself that his rejection was about the endemic incompetence of the publishing industry, not his own inability to craft a salable work. I hope he feels better now.
posted by jscalzi at 1:59 PM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


There I was wondering what to do with my Saturday night and my nine inch cock when in walked the most gorgeous two women I have..."

We're talking about literature, not Perdue Chicken ads.
posted by jonmc at 1:59 PM on July 19, 2007


Probably because people don't generally look to buy books written in that style nowadays.

Both A Factory Of Cunning and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are recent publications, and both are written in at least an Austenesque idiom. Hell, Factory is epistolary, to boot. Not a NYT bestseller, but it got published, and Strange has done very well for itself.

But yeah, neither of these is making James Patterson lose sleep.
posted by everichon at 2:10 PM on July 19, 2007


My favorite first line remains, from Tristram Shandy:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;--that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;--and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;--Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,--I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

I've fallen in love with The Pickwick Papers as well, for fun sentences like this.
posted by troybob at 2:32 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


i thought pride and prejudice was one of the most boring books i'd ever read. in high school, my english teacher, in a fit of lunacy, gave us the assignment of reading the book over spring break. the first day back, there was a pop quiz.

i was one of two people in the class that had actually read the book. i and the other chap both got in the 90 range, and EVERYONE else failed. one guy got a seven... out of 100.

my reading method of choice? the ol' "i am not leaving this couch until i read another 30 pages" with a savage beating on pillows every ten minutes.

so, yeah. how can i purchase books from these 17 publishers?
posted by RTQP at 2:35 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Both A Factory Of Cunning and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are recent publications, and both are written in at least an Austenesque idiom.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is certainly written in the style of that period but I'm sure we can agree that it could not have been written in that period. I don't know anything about the other book.
posted by Shakeer at 2:37 PM on July 19, 2007


If you listened to Front Row on BBC R4 this evening, you might have heard the one guy who did recognise defending his colleagues. His two main arguments were pretty sound. Firstly, he argued that other publishers were unlikely to have actually read it. Publishers rarely read unsolicited directly submitted manuscripts. To be honest, how could they? The fact that they send out "polite" rejection letters is certainly a though problem. Secondly, he suggested that those who did recognise it still just sent out a standard letter, assuming that it was some sort of scam.

My response to the whole thing? Meh. And I love Jane Austen.
posted by howfar at 2:41 PM on July 19, 2007


"Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death." - Mark Twain
posted by Roman Graves at 3:09 PM on July 19, 2007


Post again when a publisher actually accepts a Jane Austin novel. THAT would be a true test of ignorance, and a supreme prank.
posted by salishsea at 3:18 PM on July 19, 2007


the tone suggests he's debunking the implied criticism, but every word he says confirms it.

In other words, you seriously think all publishers should read every word of every manuscript that comes in over the transom and give a serious, detailed critique to each and every one. Tell you what, get a job as a reader for a few months—or hell, even a couple of days, if that's all you can stand—and then get back to us with your revised estimate.

As jscalzi said, this guy is just a jackass who pulled a jackass stunt and got publicity that impresses people who know nothing about publishing. I sure hope he's satisfied with that.
posted by languagehat at 3:39 PM on July 19, 2007


I'll admit that I was all "pranks like that prove nothing and are rude to boot" about the Joshua Bell thing, but fuckity fuck, this is Jane Austen we're talking about. This makes me sad. And angry, really, really angry in a comedy of manners kind of way.

Whoa. I'll take Joshua Bell over Jane Austen any day, thank you.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 3:39 PM on July 19, 2007


And he did not change the opening line, one of the most famous in world literature:

'World' literature? English-language, maybe.
posted by signal at 3:52 PM on July 19, 2007


"What happens when the gatekeepers of literature are illiterate?"

And when the gatekeepers of music are deaf? I don't really think this stunt has proved anything, but even if it has, I don't see where illiteracy comes in.

Aside, my favourite first line: "It was the day my grandmother exploded."
posted by Auz at 4:19 PM on July 19, 2007


I'll admit that I was all "pranks like that prove nothing and are rude to boot" about the Joshua Bell thing, but fuckity fuck, this is Jane Austen we're talking about.

Josh Bell was playing the music of J. S. BACH, who is certainly the greater element of interest in that scenario. And J. S. Bach kicks Jane Austen's ass.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:21 PM on July 19, 2007


And for favorite first line, today I'd have to go with:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:25 PM on July 19, 2007


" 'In five years, the penis will be obsolete,' the salesman said."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:27 PM on July 19, 2007


All buskers suck equally when you're in a hurry, even if they have fancy violins.
posted by Artw at 4:34 PM on July 19, 2007


my reading method of choice? the ol' "i am not leaving this couch until i read another 30 pages" with a savage beating on pillows every ten minutes.

Apropos to LooseFilter's favorite first line, I had to intersperse chapters of pride and prejudice with chapters of douglas adams to get through that damnable book.
posted by flaterik at 5:10 PM on July 19, 2007


That Making Light blog is pretty great, headspace.
posted by Kwine at 5:33 PM on July 19, 2007


Pop quiz. Specifics have been altered in most cases.

"Eaton -- Eaton," said I to myself. "I don't seem to remember hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely."

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the flat in which he lodged in E. Bay and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards J. bridge.

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Rick got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

Charlie and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.

"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs. Smith.

La Cumbre was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.

The deer lived in a pine wood, and she lived all alone.

As George Jones awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic tortoise.

1801.--I have just returned from a visit to my landlord--the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

On a January evening of the early seventies, Christina
Nelson was singing in Faust at the Academy of
Music in New York.


The island of Besu, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Southern Sea, is a land famous for magic.

Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, of number three, River Lane, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
posted by Tehanu at 5:54 PM on July 19, 2007


I've been a reader for a couple of literary magazines. I like Austen (plus my wife quotes her all the time), and I certainly would have recognized the opening line. And then I'd have tossed it in the "no" pile, and a couple weeks later this jackass would have been all happily self-righteous to get his form rejection letter in the mail. So yeah, this proves nothing.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 5:58 PM on July 19, 2007


Last year, I posted an (admittedly inferior) version of one of the American Book Review's Best First Lines (#43).

Update: I'm still waiting patiently for my advance from one of the major poetry houses.
posted by rob511 at 6:10 PM on July 19, 2007


I recognize Rowling, Achebe, a certain Russian, a certain Southerner, and (I think) Hemingway. That's it, though. Your test is great, Tehanu.

Still, Austen's line is arguably a lot more famous than any of those. It's on the level of "Call me Ishmael" or "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer..." It's been the subject of two movie adaptations and a miniseries within the last 20 years, and one of them used the line in the trailer for the film. Am I wrong in thinking the Austen line's saturation is somewhat better than that of some of these?
posted by Miko at 6:30 PM on July 19, 2007


What happens when the gatekeepers of literature are illiterate?

The world will end and we'll all die.
posted by jonmc at 6:34 PM on July 19, 2007


This stunt comes up periodically. Some years ago it was, I think, Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Silly season journalism. Editors desperate to fill newspaper pages. Nothing to see, move along.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:58 PM on July 19, 2007


Not even an original stunt. Back in the '70s someone tried pretty much the same thing with pieces of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "The Painted Bird"

This stunt comes up periodically. Some years ago it was, I think, Kosinski's The Painted Bird.

Doris Lessing also. She actually did this to herself, submitting The Diary of a Good Neighbor under the pseudonym Jane Somers (eventually published as The Diaries of Jane Somers). It was, as you may guess, rejected by most publishers and agents, although one accepted it, I believe, and her own agent actually recognized her work, and called her to ask what was going on.
posted by nax at 7:32 PM on July 19, 2007


A lot of people are saying that they didn't even read it. I like to think that they all read it, and all rejected it because it's shit.
posted by markr at 8:12 PM on July 19, 2007


klangklangston wrote: I agree with Twain— Austen seems to exist only as the Homo Erectus of chick lit and a weeder to convince otherwise bright children that, no, they don't actually like reading or English class all that much.

From Jane herself: Catharine Morland conversing with Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey:

“You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.”

“That little boys and girls should be tormented,” said Henry, “is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life."
posted by not that girl at 9:36 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've never read it. Am I missing a good book?

Were you talking about Pride and Prejudice there, Brandon? I read it earlier this year and was totally taken by surprise at how fucking *funny* it is. Just read the first 2 or 3 pages, a quick scene between the long-suffering Mr. Bennet and his high-strung wife, Mrs. Bennet. If it makes you laugh, even a little, you'll like the book. I zipped through it, laughing most of the way and enjoying the characters more and more as each page went by.

Mark Twain is great at many things, sure, but he could be a real dick sometimes and he's simply wrong about Jane Austen. It's a really, really good book. If you have any romance in you at all, you'll like it.

(Oh, and this prank is stupid, the reporting is full of dumb unexamined assumptions, and the whole thing proves nothing about publishing.)
posted by mediareport at 10:05 PM on July 19, 2007


Probably because people don't generally look to buy books written in that style nowadays.

Patrick O'Brian's sea adventure books owe a lot to Jane Austen (the 2nd one in the series is *very* Austen-esque), and many folks today still eat those up. It's not even a chick vs. guy thing; they're both just really good at the comedy of manners thing.
posted by mediareport at 10:07 PM on July 19, 2007


This ruse comes up frequently enough that people should not be amused or shocked by it, and publishers should instruct their readers to write "We're on to you" on all rejected manuscripts.

It would be a real story if someone unwittingly published a Jane Austen novel under another name.
posted by pracowity at 1:46 AM on July 20, 2007


languagehat: The copywriter at Penguin says all that needed to be said.

Phanx: Maybe so, but it's an odd piece: the tone suggests he's debunking the implied criticism, but every word he says confirms it.
I agree, Phanx, especially when he gets to this bit:
Yes, I can see that it is a joke. And, yes it is the silly season so the newsdesks need to fill the air and their columns with something. And yes it probably is sad that many people - like me - haven't read Jane Austen. But what did anybody really expect?
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:06 AM on July 20, 2007


I keep trying to post this and it keeps getting flagged and removed!

From the various boroughs of New York, then, came dame and Mo Nickels, and a woman named Cunninglinguist, whom I knew from meetups, and johnmc, who was married last year up in Vegas. And mdn and Lola_G, and a guy named ParisParamus, who always glowered in a corner and flipped up his nose like a goat at whosoever came near. And StickyCarpet and the pink people (or rather PinkStainlessTail and ThePinkSuperhero), and afroblanco, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

All these people came to Metafilter in the summer.

posted by grumblebee at 9:11 AM on July 20, 2007


In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
posted by Tehanu at 9:40 AM on July 20, 2007


In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since: "pull my finger."
posted by grumblebee at 9:47 AM on July 20, 2007


grumblebee - Is that a search and replace on some Austin? It totally looks like a crazy person rant (which is why it was flagged, i'd guess).

Maybe this guys problem was that his manuscript looked like a crazy person rant too.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on July 20, 2007


It wasn't actually flagged (as-far-as I know). It's my silly adaptation of a famous passage from "The Great Gatsby" (by Fitzgerald, not Austin).

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

...

All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.

posted by grumblebee at 1:33 PM on July 20, 2007


because I can't pass up these kinds of challenges:
Twain
Dostoyevsky
Harper Lee
Faulkner
Woolf
Achebe
Beagle (had to look that up!)
Kafka
Bronte
Shelley
Wharton
LeGuin
Rowlings.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:21 PM on July 20, 2007


I don't understand the whole 'submitted without an agent' argument. Do publishers really prefer to be sold manuscripts from professional marketers and salesmen (literary pimps?), rather than getting manuscripts directly from authors? Does this somehow guarantee better quality? They won't even read the manuscript otherwise (as many, many people here have suggested), but just send out a rejection letter suggesting that they did read it and didn't like it?
posted by eye of newt at 11:34 PM on July 20, 2007


I don't understand the whole 'submitted without an agent' argument.

That's because you don't understand anything about publishing.

Do publishers really prefer to be sold manuscripts from professional marketers and salesmen (literary pimps?), rather than getting manuscripts directly from authors?


Yes.

Does this somehow guarantee better quality?


Yes.

They won't even read the manuscript otherwise (as many, many people here have suggested), but just send out a rejection letter suggesting that they did read it and didn't like it?


Correct.

If you will take the trouble to visit a publisher and ask to spend, say, a half hour looking through their slush pile, you will quickly come to understand that 99.9% of what people write and send off to publishers is unredeemable crap. Agents send them stuff that, while it may not be great, is probably publishable. You do the math.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 AM on July 21, 2007


"I don't understand the whole 'submitted without an agent' argument.

That's because you don't understand anything about publishing."

Well, duh! Why do you think I was asking?

Don't ever become a teacher. I can see it now:
"Teacher, I don't understand what an integral is."
"That's because you don't know anything about math!"
posted by eye of newt at 2:05 PM on July 21, 2007


gingerbeer: you earn a score of Outstanding, plus my gratitude b/c I noticed the LeGuin tag in your profile from the post you make yesterday. I totally missed that in my skimming.
posted by Tehanu at 3:30 PM on July 21, 2007


eye of newt: Sorry, but you didn't come across as a seeker after information, you came across as a belligerent person who thought you had the simple truth everyone else was ignoring. I think if you read over your comment you'll see that phrases like "literary pimps" and "somehow" suggest that you have your mind made up that the whole thing is a scam, and/or that the slush pile is filled with nuggets of gold that are going criminally unappreciated. I submit that if you were simply a seeker of wisdom, you would have said something more along the lines of "I don't understand how this stuff works. How important are the middlemen? Why can't publishers just read all the manuscripts submitted?" That would have produced a very different kind of response. Once again, we see that if you don't take the trouble to avoid sounding like a jerk in your comment, you're likely not to like the tone of the response. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on July 21, 2007


I agree with: "you came across as a belligerent person "
but not "sounding like a jerk".

I think my anger is just thinking of some modern day great author getting rejection letters (Jane Austin got a few of her own). I can understand that it is like actors in Hollywood, too much talent (and lack of talent) going after too few spots. But it would have been nice to hear more honest comments from the publishers rather than so much defensiveness.

Something like "We get so many bad submissions that we don't read most of them and send out rejection letters anyway," would have been nice to hear.


I can't help thinking of the author of Pulizer Prize winning (posthumously) A Confederacy of Dunces, who killed himself after getting so many rejection letters.
posted by eye of newt at 4:32 PM on July 21, 2007


Wanting to know what these letters actually look like (without actually writing a book and submitting it), I found this interesting rejection letter blog.
posted by eye of newt at 5:19 PM on July 21, 2007


I found another rejection blog from the publishers point of view.

Interestingly, 'rejector' and 'rejected' got into a rejection induced spat, that ended on friendly terms.
posted by eye of newt at 6:50 PM on July 21, 2007


Tehanu - your list made me think about Le Guin, which made me check to see if anyone had posted the Le Guin writing on genre, which led to that FPP, so thank YOU.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:26 AM on July 22, 2007


Hey, thanks for finding those blogs, eye of newt, and that spat resolution is really touching!
posted by languagehat at 12:36 PM on July 22, 2007


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