Jane Austen

Would she sell today?

I recently learned about an article in the Guardian which documents an experiment by David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. He sent minimally tweaked versions of Jane’s novels to various publishers, who responded with rejections, most of them not seeming to have recognized the hoax.

This could be very depressing–if professionals in the publishing world are really unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s work or unimpressed by her wit and characterizations.

Instead, I suspect that the readers and editors handling these submissions did recognize Jane’s words but decided the source was a plagiarist (a stupid one!) or a nutjob or both, best handled with a form letter.

Still it leads to some interesting questions.

What if Jane’s books were never published in their own time and the manuscripts had just recently been discovered in some attic? I think they would generate interest as period novels and sources of information on society and women’s lives. Academics would read them. Some would inevitably become Janeites and pass the books onto their friends, reaching at least some level of cult popularity. Anyway, that’s my guess.

So let’s take the alternate reality further. What if Jane somehow time traveled into the present with her manuscripts, so they’d have to be represented to publishers as historical fiction? I’m not sure what would happen then.

If submitted as literary fiction would editors say they have too many romantic elements (plus that gauche HEA)? If submitted as romance, would editors tell Jane they weren’t sexy enough? Or would some clever person recognize that there’s a market for them? If there were not already a Jane phenomenon (as discussed in Janet’s post on I Dream of Darcy), our culture might still be ready for one.

Now–get your rotten tomatoes ready!–if I were that clever person, I have a dreadful suspicion that I would ask Jane to tighten her pacing and alter some of her language. I truly don’t think it makes sense for modern authors to be pedantic in trying to recreate period language. Making things accessible to modern audiences does not automatically equate to dumbing down. It’s not just about money; it’s about getting good stories out to a broader audience.

What do you think? Would Jane sell again today? If you were the acquiring editor, what would you do?

Elena

www.elenagreene.com

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

10 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Heather
15 years ago

It would be like a great early painter coming forward now. As a current artist people would be saying “huh, she totally doesn’t get perspective, or is that intended to be ironic?” I think it’s hard to evaluate things without taking context into account, which is why I think our judgments of “greatness” are subjective.

I think it would be almost impossible for Jane Austen’s novels to be popular works of our time if they were just introduced. We have very different expectations of novel conventions, conceits and prose now.

I re-read Daddy-Long-Legs (pub 1912) on a regular basis. I found it terribly amusing last time when I noticed Judy commenting on how difficult the prose of Jane Eyre is (pub 1847). “Did people really talk like that back then?” And while she’s asking this question, all I could think was how completely accessible Daddy-Long-Legs is to a modern reader.

All that said, I can think of one recent example that did use 18th century language and style and was published to some success: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was fascinating to read it: the language, the structure, the style were so very 18th century, yet it was a successful modern novel. But part of my enjoyment of it was from the anachronism of magic and fantasy mixed with prose and conventions I associate with non-fantastic eighteen century literature.

Maybe Jane Austen would get published as “She’s Susannah Clarke crossed with Georgette Heyer!” 🙂

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

I think that if Jane Austen were alive today she’d be writing chicklit a la Wendy Holden or Marian Keyes (she was, after all, writing contemporary romantic fiction). And since she was clearly a brilliant writer, I think she would be published.

As for getting things in her style published nowadays, aren’t there like a million JA rip-offs (I’m sorry, sequels) out there right now? And aren’t these same books doing pretty darn well?

Honestly, I don’t think most “classics”, if presented as-is, would be published today (Dickens? Hemmingway? Hardy?).

Cara King
15 years ago

I can think of one recent example that did use 18th century language and style and was published to some success: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I still haven’t read it! Bad Cara.

I heard children’s/YA author M.T. Anderson speak a few months ago, and I believe he said his Octavian Nothing was written in 18th-century style prose — makes me want to try it, too! (The full title, by the way, is “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party.”) 🙂

As for Jane Eyre — I agree with Judy! I’ve always thought Jane Austen sounded much more modern. 🙂

Maybe Jane Austen would get published as “She’s Susannah Clarke crossed with Georgette Heyer!” 🙂

Ack! Almost too true to be funny! 🙂

As for getting things in her style published nowadays, aren’t there like a million JA rip-offs (I’m sorry, sequels) out there right now? And aren’t these same books doing pretty darn well?

But presumably they’re doing well because people know Jane Austen, and want a sequel?

Honestly, I don’t think most “classics”, if presented as-is, would be published today (Dickens? Hemingway? Hardy?)

Hmm…interesting thought! If I had to put money on it, I’d guess that Hemingway would be, but Hardy and Dickens wouldn’t. (I suspect just about no 19th century novels would be published as-is, barring perhaps a handful of children’s books.)

Cara

Cara King
15 years ago

If you were the acquiring editor, what would you do?

Call me an infidel, but I give her a revision letter on every book. Okay, maybe not Pride & Prejudice. 🙂

I think, after all, that a book can be truly great, without being perfect.

And if I get up the courage, I may comment again and say what my revision letters to her would say! 🙂

Cara

Todd
15 years ago

Heather,

I think pastiches of an older style can succeed today…but they are read as pastiches of an older style, and not just as novels. What you say about context is very true.

There’s a Jorge Luis Borges story, which is the review of a (nonexistent) book: Don Quixote by Pierre Menard. This book purports not to be a retelling of Don Quixote, or a modern adaptation, but identical to Cervantes’ work word for word. The reviewer/narrator points out how the exact same words take on a very different meaning when written by a 20th century writer than when written by a 17th century one.

Steven Brust has written several books with styles based on earlier forms, and I read them all with great enjoyment. But I knew what he was doing as I read it.

To answer Elena’s question: I doubt Jane Austen, if magically transported forward in time, would have much luck in getting her novels published in their current form. But a 20th century Jane Austen–born and brought up in our time–wouldn’t write in that style anyway.

Todd-whose-writing-is-a-mockery-of-itself

Gillian
Gillian
15 years ago

I’d hope that amazing first line would at least get her on an editor’s desk.

Lois
15 years ago

This is a tough question because if Jane Austen was living today, she wouldn’t have written the books we know and love – if she was a writer, her books would be totally different, and they might or might not sell.

And if somehow she did write the exact books we do know, they probably would never be published because they aren’t what the public wants. LOL

So it’s sort of an unfair question. . . I think it’s a bigger deal that apparently only one person realized the manuscript sounded a bit familiar. . . 🙂

lois

Janet Mullany
15 years ago

I agree with Kalen. She’d be writing sharp-tongued commentaries on contemporary life–I see her as someone like Anna Maxted or Nora Ephron.

As for the story on the faked mss. sent in to the editors, I think they probably recognized them as knock-offs straight away and couldn’t be bothered to send more than a form letter. I’d hate to think it was because they didn’t know what they were dealing with.

Santa
15 years ago

I attended a very interesting workshop that dealt with capturing an agent or editor’s attention with the first few lines of your book. We participated in an exercise in which we read five opening passages of books to determine if they would be picked up.

Just about everyone in the class did not think the first one would sell today. Pearl F. Buck was the author. Full of lush colloquial prose and imagry.

Having pointed all that out, I think Jane should be kept in her era because she had proven time and again that she is able to transcend time wonderfully.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

I like to think that if I were writing in the early nineteenth century that I would be published!

And as for books not fitting today’s conventions, I’ve often found Georgette Heyer’s wonderful books to start out slow…..Wonder what editors would say about fake Heyer submissions today?

Follow
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By WPFruits.com
10
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x