The Dear Jane Letter


Yesterday we posted the sample article from Jane Austen’s Regency World about this, and now it’s hit the media in the UK (thanks to Alert Janeites Kirsten and Tony A. for the links). The Daily Mail and the Guardian both describe the carnage: In the interest of literary experimentation, excerpts from several of Jane Austen’s novels, with some identifying details changed, were submitted to several literary agents and well-known publishers for representation and/or publication. The submissions were summarily rejected, and only one of the respondents admitted to recognizing the provenance of the submission.

We would caution our Gentle Readers to pause before purchasing chaise tickets to the ever-charming village of High Dudgeon. We opined yesterday that if the letter in the sample article is the actual query letter sent, the agents/editors probably never got as far as the plagiarized sample. As readers of the much-missed Miss Snark, Literary Agent know, literary agents and editors are usually overwhelmed with queries. If the query doesn’t have a good hook, in the interest of time and efficiency it is quickly passed to the rejection pile and a politely but firmly-worded rejection note sent, usually containing variations of the phrases mentioned in the articles: not quite right for us, we’re not sure where we would place such a book, our author slate is full at this time, yada yada. Longtime readers of Miss Snark also know (and readers of AustenBlog should know after some recent shenanigans) that nitwits abound and all think they are the next, well, Jane Austen, and agents and editors have to carefully toe the line between rude and encouraging to keep the crazies at arm’s length. If they make them angry, they get nasty e-mails, letters, and personal visits from angry and violent relatives and friends; if they are too encouraging, they get daily e-mails, phone calls, submissions of more bad writing, chain letter forwards, etc. If they did read the sample, they might have recognized the work and just decided to err on the side of caution and/or convenience and send out the standard rejection letter. This was a fun little exercise and makes great copy but we suspect it’s simply some hardworking people doing their jobs with nothing sinister about it.

That’s not to say that the workings of the publishing industry are not mysterious at best and positively Byzantine at worst. It’s probable that some of the agents and editors did read the sample and did not recognize Jane Austen’s work, and that is a real shame. But we submit that before we bewail the state of an industry that would not publish Jane Austen today, consider that without Jane Austen’s publications 200 years ago, the type of books considered “marketable” might be very different today. Jane Austen’s books were influenced by 18th century authors such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, and she in turn influenced the next generation of authors such as Henry James and George Eliot, who in turn influenced the next generation of authors in a continuing evolution to the current day. Today’s literature and literary style are different from what they were 200 years ago, and that’s perfectly natural. That does not lessen the value of the older works, and it certainly is not a conspiracy.