9.21.2007

What Knopf editors had to say

Nice essay on the publishing biz in the NY Times. Check out what Knopf editors had to say about some works that passed through their hands:

The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Ana├»s Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).

But, before all you writers get too excited, the essayist also had this to say:

Actually, darts like these turned up less frequently than I expected. Even in the rejection files, where negativity reigned, the great bulk of the reader’s reports seemed fair-minded and persuasive. Put simply, a rejected manuscript usually appeared to deserve its fate.

What is most telling, I think, is that the publisher's eye is so buggedly fixed on the current market, which is a fickle, ever-changing beast.

9.20.2007

Dracula & Frankenstein: Puritan nightmares?

I'm slowly making my way through Bram Stoker's Dracula. Two things occurred to me:

First: Aren't Dracula and Frankenstein the absolutely perfect monsters for the Puritans -- and by extension, the American psyche? I mean, monsters representing sex and technology. I suppose the Victorians could be said to be struggling with these mighty issues as well. I don't think it's coincidence that the two emerged in literature at about the same time.

Here's something interesting I found about the Dracula/Frankenstein link:

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, were residing at the Villa Diodati where they were visited by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (who would soon become Mary Shelley) and Claire Claremont. One evening, after a collective reading of ghost stories, Byron suggested that each member of the party write a story of their own. Two tales that changed the face of Gothic fiction were inspired by this challenge. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, while Byron wrote a fragment about a nobleman named Augustus Darvell who contrives to return from the dead. Later that year, Polidori used his employer’s unfinished work as the basis of a novella: Lord Ruthven -- who bears an intentional resemblance to the notorious Lord Byron -- is a jaded, charismatic nobleman who must feed upon the blood of the living in order to continue his unnatural existence. Polidori’s creation became the prototype for most subsequent literary vampires, ranging from Count Dracula to Lestat.

Here's another interesting tidbit:
In the meantime, another English author had taken the vampire theme to a new height--or length, at least--in his 800-page novel entitled Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood (1847), published anonymously but now reliably attributed to James Malcolm Rhymer (1814-1881), a prolific writer of horror and adventure fiction. But a more serious predecessor of Stoker was the Irish author, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), whose 1872 Carmilla focused with great insight on the psychology and shifting emotions of his characters, and used familiar settings as well as the devices of gothic fiction. Stoker, who reviewed drama for the Le Fanu's Dublin Evening Mail, is quite likely to have encountered Carmilla. A scholar who has written extensively on Dracula and related horror fiction places Le Fanu in a pivotal position in the evolution of a whole genre: "Le Fanu's interest in the processes of the mind opened the way for the scary psychological fiction that came after him: Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898)" (Leonard Wolf, Dracula: The Connoisseurs' Guide, New York, 1997, p.111).

The second thought that surfaced in my pea-brain relates to the issue of scariness. Dorothy W. over at Books and Bikes brought this up when she read Dracula, and it stuck with me. Now, I happened to think Stoker's description of Dracula extremely vivid and sufficiently spine-chilling. Much more so than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (I really am at a loss to figure out how the book version was translated into the screen version. The two seem so different.)

But, to concur with Dorothy W., Dracula (so far) isn't all that scary. It's fun to read, but it all seems so tame. Which got me to thinking: Not many books these days scare me, except ones about war and Bush. What does it take to scare readers in this 21st century, full of lights and sounds and gadgets that hunt down ghosts in the rafters? When we have the full-gore power of TV and movie images and switch-flipping light and sound..can books really force us enough into our imagination for a good scare? What do you think readers? Are we too jaded and plugged in to be scared of things that go bump in the night?