Anonymous, The Bible
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 Rea Sea Desperadoes?
Homer, The Odyssey
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 teenager 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 Narcotic 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 tenth duel, he already got the idea. Remember how the Achilles-Patroclus story, with that vein of not-so-latent homosexuality, got us into trouble with the Boston authorities? 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 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. I broached the subject with a friend at William Morris, and I get bad vibes.
In the first place, the author’s nowhere to be found. People who knew him say it was always hard to discuss any change to be made in the text, because he was blind as a bat, couldn’t follow the manuscript, and even gave the impression he wasn’t completely familiar with it. He quoted from memory, was never sure exactly what he had written, and said the typist added things. Did he really write the book or did he just sign it?
No big deal, of course. Editing has become an art, and many books are patched together in the editor’s office or written by several hands (like Mommy Dearest) and still turn out to be bestsellers. But this second book, there is much too unclear about it. Michael says the rights don’t belong to Homer, and certain aelian bards will have to be paid off, since they are due royalties on some parts.
A literary agent who works out of Chios says the rights belong to the local rhapsodists, who virtually ghosted the book; but it’s not clear whether they are active members of that island’s Writers’ Guild. A PR in Smyrna, on the other hand, says the rights belong exclusively to Homer, only he’s dead, and therefore the city is entitled to all royalties. But Smyrna isn’t the only city that makes such a claim. The impossibility of establishing if and when Homer died means we can’t invoke the ’43 law regarding works published fifty years after the author’s death. At this point a character by the name of Callinus pops up, insisting not only that he holds all rights but that, along with The Odyssey, we must buy a package including Thebais, Epigoni, and The Cyprian Lays. Apart from the fact that these aren’t worth a dime, a number of experts think they’re not even by Homer. And how do we market them? These people are talking big bucks now, and they’re seeing how far they can push us. I tried asking Aristarchus of Samothrace for a preface; he has clout, and he’s a good writer, too, and I thought maybe he could tidy the work up. But he wants to indicate, in the body of the book, what’s authentic and what isn’t; we end up with a critical edition and zilch sales. Better leave the whole thing to some university press that will take twenty years to produce the book, which they’ll price at a couple hundred dollars a copy, and maybe a few libraries will actually buy it. Bottom line: If we take the plunge, we’re getting ourselves into an endless legal hassle, the book will be impounded, but not like the one of those sex books, which they then sell under the counter. This one will just be seized and forgotten. Maybe ten years from now Oxford will buy it for The World’s Classics, but in the meantime you’ll have spent your money, and it’ll be a long wait before you see any of it again.
I’m really sorry, because the book’s not bad. But we’re publishers, not detectives. So I’d say pass.
Alighieri, Dante, The Divine Comedy
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. This is a big problem: I don’t see how the reader will get past this first “canticle,” which doesn’t really add much to what has already been written about the next world in any number of moral tracts and treatises, not to mention the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine.
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. We have seen what happened with the so-called Sicilian poets: their publisher went around on bicycles distributing the books among the various outlets, but the works ended up on the remainders counter anyway.
Further, if we publish a long poem in Florentine, we’ll have to publish another in Milanese and another in Paduan: otherwise we lose our grip on the market. This is a job for small presses, chapbooks, etc. Personally I have nothing against rhyme, but quantitative metrics are still the most popular form with poetry readers, and I doubt that a normal reader could stomach his endless sequence of tercets, especially if he comes from Bologna, say, or Venice. So I think we’d do better to launch a series of really popular titles at reasonable prices: the works of Gildas or Anselm of Aosta, for example. And leave to the little avant-garde magazines the numbered editions on handmade paper. “For there neid fære, næning uuirthit …” The linguistic hash of the postmoderns.
Tosso, Torquato, Jerusalem Liberated
As a “modern” epic of chivalry, this isn’t bad. It’s written gracefully, and the situations are fairly fresh: high time poets stopped imitating the Breton or Carolingian cycles. But let’s face it, the story is about the Crusaders and the taking of Jerusalem, a religious subject. We can’t expect to sell such a book to the younger generation of “angries.” At best we’ll get good reviews in Our Sunday Visitor or maybe The Tablet. Even there, I have doubts about the reception of certain erotic scenes that are a bit too lewd. So my vote would be “yes,” provided the author revises the work, turning it into something even nuns could read. I’ve already mentioned this to him, and he didn’t balk at the idea of such a rewrite.
Diderot, Denis, Les bijoux indiscrets and La Moine
I confess I haven’t unwrapped these two manuscripts, but I believe a reader should sense immediately what’s worth devoting time to and what isn’t. I know this Diderot; he makes encyclopedias (he once did some proofreading for us), and he’s involved in some dreary enterprise in God knows how many volumes which will probably never see the light of day. He goes around looking for draftsmen to draw the works of a clock for him or the threads of a Gobelin tapestry, and he’ll surely bankrupt his publisher. The man’s a snail, and I don’t really think he’s capable of writing anything amusing in the fiction field, especially for a series like ours, which has some juicy, spicy little things like Restif de la Bretonne. As the old saying goes, he should stick to his last.
Sade, D. A. François, Justine
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 plays, 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 fifteen pages on the concept of pleasure, the senses and the imagination, and so on. The third time: twenty 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. The line we should follow is Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas. Let’s leave the highbrow stuff to Indiana.
Cervantes, Miguel, Don Quixote
The book, the readable parts of it, anyway, tells the story of a Spanish gentleman and his man-servant who roam the world pursuing chivalrous dreams. This Don Quixote is half crazy (the character is fully developed, and Cervantes knows how to spin a tale). The servant is a simpleton endowed with some rough common sense, and the reader identifies with him as he tries to deflate his master’s fantasies. So much for the story, which has some good dramatic twists and a number of amusing and meaty scenes. My objection is not based on my personal response to the book.
In our successful low-price series, “The Facts of Life,” we have published, with admirable results, Amadis of Gaul, The Legend of the Graal, The Romance of Tristan, The Lay of the Little Bird, The Tale of Troy, and Erec and Enid. Now we also have an option on The Kings of France by that promising young Barberino, and if you ask me, it’ll be the book of the year and maybe even a book of the month, because it has real grass-roots appeal. Now, if we do this Cervantes, we’ll be bringing out a book that, for all its intrinsic value, will mess up our whole list, because it suggests those novels are lunatic ravings. Yes, I know all about freedom of expression, political correctness, and what have you, but we can’t very well bite the hand that feeds us. Besides, this book seems a one-shot deal. The writer has just got out of jail, he’s in bad shape, I can’t remember whether it was his arm or his leg they cut off, but he certainly isn’t raring to write something else. I’m afraid that in rushing to produce something new at all costs we might jeopardize a publishing program that has so far proved popular, moral, and (let’s be frank) profitable. I say no.
Manzoni, Alessandro, I Promessi sposi
These days the blockbuster novel is apparently the rage, if you have any faith in print-run figures. But there are novels and there are novels. If we had bought Doyle’s The White Company or Henty’s By Pike and Dyke, at this point we’d know what to put in our paperback line. These are books people read and will be reading two hundred years from now, because they tug at the heart, are written in simple and appealing language, don’t try to hide their regional origin, and they deal with contemporary themes like feudal unrest and the freedom of the Low Countries. Manzoni, on the contrary, sets his novel in the seventeenth century, a period that is a notorious turn-off. Moreover, he engages in a very dubious linguistic experiment, inventing a kind of Milanese-Florentine language that is neither fish nor fowl. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a model for young creative-writing students. But that’s not the worst. The fact is that our author sets up a lowbrow story, the tale of a poor engaged couple whose marriage is prevented by the conniving of some local overlord. In the end they do get married and everybody’s happy. A bit thin, considering that the reader has to digest six hundred pages. Further, while ostensibly delivering an unctuous sermon on Providence, Manzoni actually unloads whole bundles of pessimism on us (he’s a Jansenist, to call him by his right name). He addresses the most melancholy reflections on human weakness and national failings to today’s public, who want something quite different, more heroic yarns, not a narrative constantly interrupted to allow the author to spout cheap philosophy or, worse, to paste together a linguistic collage, setting two seventeenth-century edicts between a dialogue half in Latin and adding pseudo-folk talk that is hardly proper for the positive heroes the public is eager for. Having just finished that fluent and flavorsome little book, Hewlett’s The Forest Lovers, I read this Promessi sposi with considerable effort. You only have to turn to page one to see how long it takes the author to get to the point. He starts with a landscape description whose syntax is so dense and labyrinthine that you can’t figure out what he’s saying, when it would have been so much easier to write, “One morning, in the Lecco area…” Well, so it goes: not everybody has the narrative gift, and even fewer have the ability to write in good Italian.
Still, the book is not totally without merit. But I warn you: it would take forever to sell out a first printing.
Proust, Marcel, A la recherche du temps perdu
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.
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason
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.” Remember the Summa of that Dominican? We began to translate it, and then we had to pass the rights on to Sheed and Ward because it ran way over budget.
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. Day before yesterday I tried to phone him directly in Köenisberg, to see if we could do just one book, but the cleaning woman said the master was out and I should never call between five and six because that’s when he takes his walk, or between three and four because that’s nap time, and so on. I would advise against getting involved with a man like this: we’ll end up with a mountain of his books in the warehouse.
Kafka, Franz, The Trial
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.
These young writers believe they can be “poetic” by saying “a man” instead of “Mr. So-and-so in such-and-such a city.” Genuine writing has to keep in mind the old newspaper man’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.
Joyce, James, Finnegans Wake
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.