At the prompting of a faithful reader of this blog I think I’m going to spend a post or two giving some reflections on my (limited) publishing experience as well as some guides for scholars who wish to start publishing within OT/HB/ANE studies. But first, here is a really humorous piece that anyone who has dealt with a publisher will resonate with (and if you haven’t had this blessed experience yet then this gives you a taste of what to expect). This essay was published in the New York Times Book Review on 3/14/1993 under the title, “Sorry, Mr. Homer, Your Epic Is Marvelous, But It’s Just Not Right for Us as Publishers.” Enjoy:
Beginning in 1959, Umberto Eco contributed a monthly column of wit and parody to an Italian literary journal. In the 1960′s the columns were collected and went through two editions. Some of them have now been translated by William Weaver and will be published in paperback in May by Harcourt Brace & Company as a Helen and Kurt Wolff Book under the title “Misreadings.” The excerpts below are taken from a piece titled “Regretfully, We Are Returning Your . . .” — reports from professional readers of manuscripts submitted to publishers by agents or hopeful authors.
“The Bible.” Anonymous.
I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action-packed, they have everything today’s reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres and so on.
The Sodom and Gomorrah chapter, with the transvestites putting the make on the angels, is worthy of Rabelais; the Noah stories are pure Jules Verne; the escape from Egypt cries out to be turned into a major motion picture. In other words, a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists, full of invention, with just the right amount of piety, and never lapsing into tragedy.
But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many — too many — stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense.
The end result is a monster omnibus. It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody. And acquiring the rights from all these different authors will mean big headaches, unless the editor takes care of that himself. The editor’s name, by the way, doesn’t appear anywhere on the manuscript, not even in the table of contents. Is there some reason for keeping his identity a secret?
I’d suggest trying to get the rights only to the first five chapters. We’re on sure ground there. Also come up with a better title. How about “The Red Sea Desperadoes?”
“The Odyssey.” Homer.
Personally, I like this book. A good yarn, exciting, packed with adventure. Sufficient love interest, both marital fidelity and adulterous flings (Calypso is a great character, a real man-eater); there’s even a Lolita aspect, with the teen-ager Nausicaa, where the author doesn’t spell things out, but it’s a turn-on anyway.Great dramatic moments, a one-eyed giant, cannibals, even some drugs, but nothing illegal, because as far as I know the lotus isn’t on the Narcotics Bureau’s list. The final scene is in the best tradition of the Western:some heavy fist-swinging, and the business with the bow is a masterstroke of suspense.
What can I say? It’s a page turner, all right, not like the author’s first book, which was too static, all concerned with unity of place and tediously overplotted. By the time the reader reached the third battle and the 10th duel, he already got the idea. But this second book is a totally different thing: it reads as smooth as silk. The tone is calmer, pondered but not ponderous. And then the montage, the use of flashbacks, the stories within stories. . . . In a word, this Homer is the right stuff. He’s smart.
Too smart, maybe. I wonder if it’s all really his own work. I know, of course, a writer can improve with experience (his third book will probably be a sensation), but what makes me uncomfortable — and, finally, leads me to cast a negative vote — is the mess the question of rights will cause. In the first place, the author’s nowhere to be found. People who knew him say it was always hard to discuss any changes to be made in the text, because he was as blind as a bat, couldn’t follow the manuscript, and even gave the impression he wasn’t completely familiar with it. Did he really write the book or did he just sign it?
“The Divine Comedy.” Alighieri, Dante.
Alighieri is your typical Sunday writer. (In everyday life he’s an active member of the pharmacists’ guild.) Still, his work shows an undeniable grasp of technique and considerable narrative flair. The book, in the Florentine dialect, consists of about a hundred rhymed chapters, and much of it is interesting and readable. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of astronomy and certain concise, provocative theological notions. The third part of the book is the best and will have the widest appeal; it involves subjects of general interest, concerns of the common reader — salvation, the Beatific Vision, prayers to the Virgin. But the first part is obscure and self-indulgent, with passages of cheap eroticism, violence and downright crudity. But the greatest drawback is the author’s choice of his local dialect (inspired no doubt by some crackpot avant-garde idea). We all know that today’s Latin needs a shot in the arm — it isn’t just the little literary cliques that insist on this. But there’s a limit, after all, if not in the rules of language then at least to the public’s ability to understand.
“Justine.” Sade, D. A. Francois.
The manuscript was in a whole pile of things I had to look at this week and, to be honest, I haven’t read it through. I opened it at random three times, in three different places, which, as you know, is enough for a trained eye.
Well, the first time I found an avalanche of words, page after page, about the philosophy of nature, with digressions on the cruelty of the struggle for survival, the reproduction of plants, and the cycles of animal species. The second time: at least 15 pages on the concept of pleasure, the senses and the imagination, and so on. The third time: 20 pages on the question of submission between men and women in various countries of the world. I think that’s enough. We’re not looking for a work of philosophy. Today’s audience wants sex, sex, and more sex. In every shape and form.
“A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Proust, Marcel.
This is undoubtedly a serious work, perhaps too long, but as a paperback series it could sell.
But it won’t do as is. It needs serious editing. For example, the punctuation has to be redone. The sentences are too labored; some take up a whole page. With plenty of good in-house work, reducing each sentence to a maximum of two or three lines, breaking up paragraphs, indenting more often, the book would be enormously improved.
If the author doesn’t agree, then forget it. As it stands, the book is too — what’s the word? – asthmatic.
“Critique of Practical Reason.” Kant, Immanuel.
I asked Susan to take a look at this, and she tells me that after Barthes there’s no point translating this Kant.In any case, I glanced at it myself. A reasonably short book on morality could fit nicely into our philosophy series, and might even be adopted by some universities. But the German publisher says that if we take this one, we have to commit ourselves not only to the author’s previous book, which is an immense thing in at least two volumes, but also to the one he is working on now, about art or about judgment, I’m not sure which. All three books have more or less the same title, so they would have to be sold boxed (and at a price no reader could afford); otherwise bookshop browsers would mistake one for the other and think, “I’ve already read this.”
There’s another problem. The German agent tells me that we would also have to publish the minor works of this Kant, a whole pile of stuff including something about astronomy. I would advise against getting involved with a man like this; we’ll end up with a mountain of his books in the warehouse.
“The Trial.” Kafka, Franz.
Nice little book. A thriller with some Hitchcock touches. The final murder, for example. It could have an audience.
But apparently the author wrote under a regime with heavy censorship. Otherwise, why all these vague references, this trick of not giving names to people or places? And why is the protagonist being put on trial?If we clarify these points and make the setting more concrete (facts are needed: facts, facts, facts), then the action will be easier to follow and suspense is assured. Genuine writing has to keep in mind the old newspaperman’s five questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? If we can have a free hand with editing, I’d say buy it. If not, not.
“Finnegans Wake.” Joyce, James.
Please, tell the office manager to be more careful when he sends books out to be read. I’m the English-language reader, and you’ve sent me a book written in some other, Godforsaken language. I’m returning it under separate cover.