July 23, 2007
The Jane Austen Festival in Bath, apparently, has a point it would like to make about the publishing industry. The leader of the festival sent a book proposal called First Impressions to eighteen publishers. The first line was a direct lift from the first line of Pride & Prejudice; the passages that followed were thinly veiled reconstructions of Austen's writings. Read the story here.
Seventeen of the eighteen publishers rejected the proposal without noting the similarities between it and Austen's work; the eighteenth publisher accused the "author" of "plagiarism." The unfortunate seventeen are now under attack by the Jane Austen Festival in Bath; their rejection letters are an indictment on the state of contemporary literature, or somesuch nonsense.
To my knowledge, the Jane Austen Festival in Bath didn't send their faux-proposal to InterVarsity Press, so I have not seen it. I would, however, like to offer my own meager defense of the publishers who rejected the work.
I recognize that in defending the rejection of Jane Austen I am incurring the wrath of her rabid fans, one of whom I live with. So I don't enter into this lightly, but I think it's important to confront the reality of the market: books that are classic are still to one degree or another timebound. They were written in a specific context by people who were shaped by and engaged with the ethos of their era. No matter how profound and timeless some of their insights have proven to be, at a certain point they start to look like quaint anachronisms with no relevance to contemporary society. Jane Austen's ouevre, sadly, fits into this category.
Exhibit A: Here's the first line of the novel proposal: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I see three things fundamentally anachronistic about this opening line:
* Thing number one: Truth is rarely universally acknowledged in this day and age, particularly such sentimental and clearly socially constructed a "truth" as this opening statement.
* Thing number two: "A single man . . . must be in want of a wife" hardly seems a safe assumption these days.
* Thing number three: I for one would be uncomfortable with the idea that one can be "in want of a wife" in the same way that one might be "in possession of a good fortune."
Now please hear me, all you rabid fans of Jane Austen: I am not deriding Pride & Prejudice as a literary work. Trust me, I know whereof I speak: I have dutifully sat through two viewings of the ten-episode production starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I own (by proxy) that production, which means that before I die I'll probably sit through it again and, let's face it, again. I also own (by proxy) the 2005 Keira Knightly film which communicates very effectively in two hours what took the Colin Firth version six hours; I think they trimmed about four hours of dancing and kept the story intact. I will aver that Pride & Prejudice is a really good story that does, in many ways, transcend its particular setting. But as a new novel it is neither new nor novel, and the editors at those seventeen publishers were right to ascertain that it wouldn't fetch the audience that the original has been able to cultivate over nearly two hundred years.
Exhibit B: Jane Austen. Keeping in mind that I have not seen the actual faux-proposal ("Back, rabid Jane Austen fans, back!"), and although I'm sure her name wasn't on the proposal, for the sake of intellectual integrity the Jane Austen Festival in Bath would need to manufacture an appropriate doppelganger for her, and so we have to imagine what strengths this faux-Jane Austen would bring to the marketing plan. Consider, then, what a mousy, reclusive and (let us not forget) dead author has to offer a publisher in this technology/celebrity-driven culture. Jane Austen would not know how to deal with a radio interview, whether in person or by telephone. She wouldn't be able to conduct herself from her castle by carriage to the Barnes & Noble for a booksigning without freaking out.
Seriously, picture Jane Austen with one of those Bluetooth things in her ear, plugging dates for public readings into her BlackBerry as she boards the Lear for Hollywood to negotiate the Fox television series deal and the manga version of her collected works. She's lost some of her charm, hasn't she? No, I'm afraid Jane Austen isn't as marketable a person as is Jane Austen the icon, and so she would indeed have a much more difficult time securing a publishing deal. It's not her, it's the market.
So there, Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I quote the prophet Isaiah: "Wash and make yourselves clean. / Take your evil deeds / out of my sight! / Stop doing wrong, / learn to do right!" Enough with your dirty tricks! Leave us poor publishers alone! We've got enough to worry about now that Harry Potter is done and people are back to thinking that books are a quaint anachronism with no relevance to contemporary society.
Be gentle, rabid Jane Austen fans, be gentle . . .