Thursday, August 02, 2007

No, it's just bad
If you were an editor at a publishing company focused on fiction novels for mass markets, how would you react if you received a manuscript from an unknown author that began like this?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr Barnett," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Weatherfield Manor is let at last?"

I know how I'd react. Based both on the word of a teacher with a blog and on my impression of how I wrote years and years ago, the "history of the world" introduction is a pretty reliable sign of amateurish writing. Next I'd notice the very antiquated prose. Unfortunately for the author, the English language evolves. To be fair, there could easily be a good reason for such a style in quoted speech, and I guess there might be an acceptable reason for it in the author's own voice. What if an author wanted to set a book in the past but deal with themes that got swept under the rug in that period, like class or race issues? Using an old-fashioned style with a modern story, or modern theme, might be a jarring and effective way to do it.

However, the reader needs to have some hint that there's a reason for the unfamiliar style. A brief reversion to modern prose, a quick segue into a plot ripped from the headlines rather than the staid talk about society life which is the only fiction we've read in this style, something. Seeing nothing like that, I'd reject the book with a clear conscience. Very, very few people would read it for fun in its current state, and as fiction from an unknown author it has no apparent cultural or historical significance to pull in readers. Even if there are pearls of insight in there, it would take too much editing to polish them, so it just wouldn't be worth the trouble.

At this point I really don't need to Google phrases from the manuscript to check for plagiarism, but if I decided to for some reason, I would find that first sentence is very well known even though I myself have never read Pride and Prejudice, so that would be another reason to reject it too.

All this is a long-winded way of saying to Austen enthusiast David Lassman, and to Andrew Sullivan as well, "no shit." I don't dispute the accuracy of Sullivan's recent anecdotes about the horrible state of the publishing industry, but seriously, it reflects badly on modern publishers that they wouldn't buy a 200-year-old book? Really? No, sorry, they suck because the editors didn't recognize the classic novel. Well, one did, but only one. Well, only one made a point to say so in the rejection letter, but other publishers say they recognized it and simply sent form letters. (And how much time, exactly, do you expect them to waste on what they have already decided is definitely not publishable?) But the publishing industry sucks because of all those, um, other editors.

There's a very interesting discussion to have about how and why language evolves. Is it really the result of a "dumbing down" of culture? Just for starters, I read somewhere or other that 200-year-old prose may seem incredibly dense to you or me but actually makes perfect sense if you read it out loud, or have it read to you; is that really true? I almost feel obligated to go to grad school, lest the subject receive no more serious commentary than Sullivan's version of "Hey! You kids get off my lawn!"

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