In a literary landscape filled with wizards, vampires, the undead, night walkers, and salacious love stories (eg, Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk), one wonders if Jane Austen were alive today, could she find a publisher for her work? That’s the question that David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England posed back in 2007. Lassman submitted the opening chapters and plot synopses of Austen’s most famous novels to 18 of England’s largest publishers and prominent literary agents. Of course, he had to make a few slight modification to disguise her work. He changed Austen’s name to Alison Laydee (a play on her actual nom de plume, “A Lady”), altered the titles and the recognizable names of the main characters. He was however, bold enough to leave the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice intact: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
So what sort of response did Jane Austen, one of the greatest and enduring writers in British history receive? Shockingly, Austen was rejected by all publishers and agents — yes, you read the correctly: the great Jane Austen received those wretched impersonal and disheartening rejection slips — aspiring writers can commiserate. Lassman elaborates, “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon, and yet only one recipient recognized them as Austen’s work.” Bloomsbury sent a rejection letter stating that the “chapters had been read with interest but were not suited to our list.” Penguin sent a rejection letter that read: “Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions [disguised Pride and Prejudice]. It seems like a really original and interesting read.” Thanks a lot, mate.
David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, who was very disappointed with the results of this clever literary experiment, recognized that there is something very broken with the publishing industry today: “It’s interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand.” He is being very polite. Look, when you diss a literary great like Austen, the gloves come off (and you don’t want to see what happens when you piss off all the Janeites who will quickly shed the polite and proper customs of the Regency Period and go off on a rampage, Game-of-Thrones style…). The problem is much deeper, much worse than “filters” that stop literary work. Let’s face it — one can surmise that these clerks are not very well-read. How is it possible that these appointed literary gatekeepers lack a level of education where they cannot even spot one of the most famous opening lines in literature (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”). Would they even recognize Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot, Tolkien, Bronte, Orwell, or Woolf? And more critically, would they appreciate the brilliance, the creativity, and the depth of these great writers?
Based on the results of this literary experiment, one might arrive at the depressing conclusion that the decisions made by this new generation of literary gatekeepers would deprive the world of the greatest writers from the pantheon of literature. Nearly 400 years ago, Ben Jonson eloquently praised William Shakespeare in the preface to the First Folio by stating that the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time.” Perhaps Jonson was wrong. Sadly, as Lassman found out, that although some of of these author’s work has endured for several centuries, it is not for modern times, the Google Era. Alas, we live in a culture where readers crave banal, formulaic narratives, and the internet surreptitiously continues the dumbing down of the masses by offering fleeting digital communication filled with emojis, 140-character tweets, disappearing messages, sound bites on an endless loop, and Kardashianism. To quote Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
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“Rejecting Jane” by David Lassman, Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, No 28, July/August 2007