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?