It’s time for the publishing news of the week!
And, unsurprisingly, let’s start with a new twist in the Go Set a Watchman affair. This time, it is not related to the circumstances of its publication (phew!) but to a very surprising decision made by an independent bookstore in the United States. Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan, is offering a refund of the purchase price of the book to every customer who is disappointed in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The reason? The bookstore blames the shameful way Go Set a Watchman was marketed by the publishing industry. In a statement published on their website, Brilliant Books’ owners claim that Go Set a Watchman should have been presented to the public as an “academic insight” of Harper Lee’s development as an author rather than as a “nice summer novel” and a “new book”. “We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected.” Brilliant Book’s owners made this decision after a faithful customer went to tell her disappointment to Peter Makin, one of the bookstore’s owners. The customer told him that To Kill a Mockingbird was her favourite book of all time and that she had really been looking forwards to reading Harper Lee’s new novel but that the book was not what she had been led to believe it was. Peter Makin immediately apologised and refunded her, and decided to offer a refund to the dozens of customers who had also bought Go Set a Watchman.
I don’t like to criticize independent bookstore, especially when they are American (they are so few!) but I have to say that I totally disagree with Brilliant Books’ decision and I don’t think it sends the right message. This is true that it may be seen as a commercial strategy implemented by an independent bookstore that needs to keep its customers and gain the loyalty of new ones. In this regard, I couldn’t blame them for making this decision. On the other hand, I think this is wrong to say that the book was shamefully marketed. The publisher, as well as the reviewers, have never hidden the fact that the manuscript was written decades ago and more or less recently discovered. We also knew that this manuscript was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that it was rejected as such, the editor asking Lee to rewrite it until it became To Kill a Mockingbird. We knew the story. I believe that every bookseller who sold Go Set a Watchman was aware of that, as were the readers who pre-ordered and bought this novel. This novel’s story went with the news of its release, nobody could ignore it. Second, saying that this novel is not the perfect summer read and can only be read as an academic insight seems also totally wrong: it is not because you don’t enjoy a novel or are disappointed because it is less good than a previous novel from its novelist or doesn’t match your expectations that it cannot be considered as a novel. Fiction, unlike history, science or sociology is subjective. I believe that many people enjoyed reading this novel, and some of them may well have read it on the beach… If we could claim a refund every time we don’t like a novel, I doubt many novelists could earn their living from their work (and they are unfortunately only a handful to be able to do that…). So all this to say that if we can indeed read this novel with a more pragmatic and scholarly reading, it remains a novel that can be enjoyed on its own and, in this regard, we shouldn’t offer refunds to customers.
Let’s switch to the second news of the week. According to Catherine Nichols, you would have more chances to see your manuscript published if you are a man than if you are a woman… Catherine Nichols is an author who was looking for an agent. After receiving a lot of rejections whereas her friends assured her that her novel was good, and getting a lot of similar comments about her “beautiful writing”, she starting to think that the problem was she was the “wrong person”. She sent her quest (a query letter and the first pages of her manuscript) to six agents under a male pseudonym, George Leyer. She got five answers: three manuscript requests and two “warm rejections praising his exciting project”. For the quest she had previously sent to agents under her real name, she had only received a total of two manuscript requests. Very surprised, the author decided to carry on with her little experiment. She sent out 50 queries as George, and had his manuscript requested 17 times, that is eight and a half times more than for the queries under her real name.
What do I think about this little experiment? Am I shocked by this report? First, I think that it is not so reliable. Something that proves how thoughtlessly this author led her experiment is that when she started the experiment, she sent the manuscripts to the agents she “had intended to query under my own name.” So she sent her manuscript to these agents, who were interested in this manuscript written by George Leyer, but nothing says that they wouldn’t have been interested in this manuscript if it had been sent under the author’s real name. As she didn’t send George’s quest to the agents she had sent it to under her real name, this doesn’t prove much. This is true that when she decided to extend the experiment, “most of the agents only heard from one or the other of us [George or herself], but she did overlap a little.” And, from what she writes in her article, only one agent a rejection form to her while asking if they could send George’s manuscript to a junior agent. Apart from that, she only noticed a difference in the comments that she got from the agents: George’s rejections were more “polite and warmer”. According to me, that is not enough to prove the sexism accusations.
I have worked in the Manuscripts Department of a French publishing house – in France, authors send their manuscripts directly to publishing houses, agencies don’t exist – and I was in charge of reading the slush piles and sending personalized rejection letters to the authors. I am not going to make friends by saying this but I could only notice that manuscripts that had been sent out to us by women tended to be soppier and the plot more simplistic than those sent out by male writers. Obviously, that is a very general observation, and I have luckily encountered numerous exceptions. However, I did not care whether the writer was a woman or a man when I wrote the personalized rejection letters. If the writing was soppy and stereotyped, I was writing it, no matter if I was addressing a female or a male author. That’s why it’s a bit hard to imagine that an agent would tailor or change its critics according to the gender of the author…
I am not one of those who think that sexism doesn’t exist. It does unfortunately exist and is visible in many areas, starting with the differences in wages. However, I don’t believe that this experiment was led rigorously enough and can justify the statement that women have to adopt male pseudonym if they want maximal chances to see their manuscript published. Sorry to put it this way but it sounds like bullshit to me. I have the feeling that this author was more looking for a publicity stunt than actually trying to prove that sexism exists in the publishing industry. Sexism is always a topic that makes people react, so she was sure to bet on the right thing. At the same time, it is always easier and reassuring for a wannabe-author to think that their manuscript was rejected because of their gender rather than its quality or non-quality: “The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me — Catherine.” To conclude, as you will have understood, I really don’t mind authors taking initiatives to show prejudices, on the contrary, but I think this has to be done in the right way and screaming scandal when there are too few valid proofs is too easy. I believe that Catherine Nichols’s article tends more to harm the credibility of female authors than the contrary. Its only credit is that it made people talk of course, and as some of the national newspapers wrote about this story, the journalists also started to wonder more generally about sexism in publishing and maybe this will lead to some serious studies about the issue? Let’s hope so. You can read Catherine Nichols’s article here.
Sorry guys, I was a bit long about these news, because I believe this was important to talk about this and I wanted to make sure that my point of view would be clearly understandable. So it’s time for the 3rd news, and this time I’ll be quicker. The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2015 was finally revealed and it looks quite exciting. First because some best-selling and famous writers were surprisingly left out of this longlist – Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro and William Boyd –, which made more space for new novelists. As a result, three debut novelists have been named in the longlist, which features 13 novels overall: Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obioma and Anna Smaill, a New Zealand writer. These new novelists will stand alongside more experienced novelists, let’s say: Anne Enright (former winner of the prize), Marilynne Robinson and Anne Tyler. Also, the Man Booker Prize experienced a big change two years ago when it opened to any novelist writing in English. As a result, 5 US writers are part of the longlist, as well as a Jamaican novelist, Marlon James – the first Jamaican-born author to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and a Moroccan-born author living in the United States, Laila Lalami. At least, we can be sure that the Man Booker Prize welcomes talent and diversity this year, and that’s great news!
See you next week!