If you’re ever feeling great about yourself and wonder when the high is going to stop, here’s a quick way to expedite the inevitable low: try to make the publishing world less serious. Try to have a bit of fun in the ultra-serious world of Books, capital B.

It’s a sure-fire way to get knocked to your knees.

Something I just read makes me feel like a victim of publishing elitism… but I feel too low to recount my own story quite yet. So, instead, I’ll reference two classic examples of people who were flatly rejected by book snobs when they tried to inject a little fun into books: JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer.

Rejecting JK Rowling
JK Rowling was turned down by publisher after publisher for a whole year before getting a meager $1000 deal for her amazing first Harry Potter book. Right, we all know the story; no need to get into details – as much as I’d love to. As much as I’d love to know just how upset Rowling must have felt after each and every rejection she received. Getting one rejection is hard; sitting on a fabulous & fun book whilst getting dozens of rejections had to have felt like getting kicked repeatedly in one’s already bruised stomach. Terrible.

Eventually, of course, the publishing world accepted Rowling. And proceeded to put her on a pedestal (which she’s earned!).

Rejecting Stephenie Meyer
Although Stephenie Meyer famously did not face the getting-representation and getting-published nightmare that Rowling did, Meyer faced something that one might argue is even worse: repeated post-publication rejection from people in the publishing world*:

  • “Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn” – Stephen King
  • “What a load of grammatically incoherent, sexually repressed, Mormo-Victorian manipulation” – E. Boyd Vogeler (who??)
  • “the book was riddled with purple prose and Mary Sues and was a superficial piece of crap” – snowcone666 (again, who??)
  • “Most readers who have a basic knowledge of English will know something is not quite right with her writing, but won’t be able to point at what it is and say, ‘here’s why.’ I can.” – Reese (seriously, who??)
  • “If I had an eternity to read, I still might never pick up [Breaking Dawn] again.” – Anne North, Vogue

Even if you don’t like Stephenie Meyer, it’s still sort of sad to read all those notes, isn’t it? Even sadder, IMHO, is that Meyer let the harsh criticism get to her… and went so far as to admit to Vogue that she thinks of herself as an amateur. The fact that she’d sold over 100 million copies of her books worldwide obviously wasn’t evidence enough of her talents under the crushing weight of all those oh-so-public rejections.

Why Is the Book World So Snobby & Serious?
When taking critical theory in undergrad, I fell in love with Bakhtin and his very lovely idea that is heteroglossia… but I won’t get into that. Rather, I’d like to remind book lovers of the decidedly non-elite roots of the novel, which Bakhtin was so kind as to point out in Discourse in the Novel (indirect quote):

Where the ‘high’ genres (such as poetry) were undoubtedly integral to European cultural and national unification in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ‘low’ (i.e. at first unrespected) genres such as the novel grew out of the ribald comedy of the fairs and the buffoon spectacles frequented by the lower classes.

The novel was once merely a buffoon spectacle – a joke. Something to have a little fun with. But it seems that we’ve all forgotten the heritage, shoved it into the closet, under the rug, or wherever it is we collectively try to hide stuff we’d rather forget because it makes it hard to be snobby.

When did we decide to elevate the novel to a hallowed entity? When did the book become the Book? When did it cease to be filled with humor and life… in favor of serious observation and serious criticism? During Modernism? Does Stephenie Meyer have Hemingway, Faulkner, and Stein to thank for the criticism she continues to get as a writer?

But wait! Weren’t the modernists all about experimentation? Didn’t they champion change and growth? I don’t recall ever reading – in undergrad or grad school – that Gertrude Stein believed she’d taken writing as far as it could and should go with Tender Buttons. In fact, wasn’t Tender Buttons quite playful? Oh, but, I see, it was playful in a critical way… and that’s the only way we’re allowed to be playful in writing. Period. Is that right? Is that the argument? Help me out ‘cos it’s not my argument, so it’s hard for me to wrap my playful, non-serious brain around.

Okay, I’m Ready to Tell My Story
A person I’ve never heard of – perhaps he’s wonderful, I don’t know – yesterday criticized our new website, Page99Test. Well, he didn’t criticize the site itself; he criticized the concept. (Why, oh why, is everyone in publishing so darn critical? Were we not held enough as babies?)

The concept is based on something I’ve been doing for years: I browse through bookstores and, when my attention is captured by a title or a cover – or any number of those cues we already use to start the book-consideration process – I open the book to page 99 and read it, top to bottom.

Then, if I’m interested in turning the page, I do so and proceed with my should-I-buy-this-book reading; if I’m not, I put it down and don’t consider buying it. (With millions of books to choose from, consumers NEED a way to filter the options.)

We’ve based our website on this very idea – on the notion that you can use page 99 to get a feel for the writing of a book and to help you determine if you should buy the book.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a fairly legitimate way – although not the only way – to judge a book. At least, it’s no worse than using cover art, the author’s name (and the authority it carries), the write-up on the jacket/back, or the first few pages of the book. I’d go so far as to say it’s even better. Why? Because a book cover is intended to sell the book. And a title and first chapter are both given just as much thought/consideration as the cover. And so is the description/synopsis on the back.

But page 99 is just a lowly random page. Sitting there. Being part of the book. Different in different editions. Revelatory for the lack of attention normally paid it.

Regardless of how valuable sampling a work may be, the idea is, evidently “dumb”: “How dumb do you want to be? Take the Page 99 Test and Find Out”

…Hold On – Didn’t Ford Madox Ford, a Modernist, First Suggest the Page 99 Test?
It doesn’t seem to matter to some naysayers that a great literary player of the Modern Period Ford Madox Ford – you know, the guy who founded The Transatlantic Review and chilled with Joyce, Hemingway, Stein and Pound – the guy who was the model for a character in The Sun Also Rises – first promoted the page 99 test as a way of judging the quality of the whole of a book.

Ford Madox Ford and his contributions to literature or his influence on our so-called High Art must mean nothing today. Ford’s page 99 test is, as the writer of the piece put it, “dumb”. Stupid Ford.

…So I guess the modernists don’t really matter then. Except when it’s convenient? Is that right? (Help me if I’m missing something. I’m new to elitism.)  Except when you want to hate on a new writer like Meyer who isn’t quite High Lit enough for you. Or an idea that isn’t intelligent enough for you. Or on progress. Innovation. Fun.

~joanna

PS: Thankfully, we’ve had boatloads of positive feedback. But it only takes a few harsh, unnecessarily mean people to put a damper on everything.

*In many cases, these people “in the publishing world” are not in traditional publishing.

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