Of literary hoaxes and accounting for publishers’ taste: Steps vs. Naked Came the Stranger
July 21, 2013 | 5:16 pm
On CNN, Bob Greene writes an opinion column discussing the Rowling/Galbraith The Cuckoo’s Calling story, in which an unassuming mystery story turned out to be by the Harry Potter author. Greene makes the point that Rowling’s publisher accepted the book knowing that Galbraith was Rowling, but how would that publisher have treated the manuscript if they hadn’t known who the author was already?
(Though Greene doesn’t seem to know this, other stories on the matter have the answer: editor Kate Mills of Orion Publishing did come forward as having rejected the book; it was written well enough but she didn’t love it. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has some excellent and cogent thoughts on why this was, and how Rowling/Galbraith relates to Stephen King/Richard Bachman, over on The Business Rusch.)
Greene then relates the story of author Chuck Ross, who in the 1970s—as a thought experiment, after his own book kept getting rejected—typed up a copy of Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, an award-winning novel of a few years before, and submitted it under his own byline to 14 major publishing houses. Four of them had published books by Kosinski and one of which had published Steps. All of them rejected it, though none recognized it as Steps. Oddly enough, the rejection from one of them echoes Kate Mills’s rejection of The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had published Kosinski’s "Being There," wrote to Ross:
"While your prose style is very lucid, the content of the book didn’t inspire the level of enthusiasm here that a publisher should have for any book on their list in order to do well by it."
He was subsequently also rejected by 13 top agents, who likewise didn’t seem to know they were rejecting a famous novel. Ross thought that after he revealed what he had done, publishers and agents would be embarrassed they’d rejected an award-winning novel. “But the attitude was, ‘So what?’” Ross said.
This is an amusing story, and it makes a stark contrast to another great literary hoax from just a few years earlier: the story of Naked Came the Stranger. This hoax seems to be precisely the opposite of what Ross tried. Annoyed by what he saw as a flood of sensationalist trash being perpetrated on the public by American publishers, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady recruited two dozen of his fellow Newsday staffers to get together and write the absolute worst piece of schlock they could.
He provided them each with a four-page story outline, warning them, "True excellence in writing will be blue-penciled into oblivion. There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex." The plot of the novel, such as it was, involved a suburban housewife who hatched a plan to sleep with all the married men in her neighborhood in order to get back at her husband for having an affair.
He recruited his sister-in-law to play the part of the made-up author, Penelope Ashe, the book was published in 1969, and to nobody’s surprise the book sold well—20,000 copies before some of the writers felt guilty about the deception and leaked the truth to the media, 90,000 copies by October 1969 and 400,000 copies as of May 2012.
What can we take from all of this? Perhaps the fact that just because something is published by a traditional publishing house is no guarantee that it’s necessarily of good quality, and the fact that something is good quality doesn’t necessarily mean a publishing house will want it. Publishing houses reject things that are well-written but they don’t love all the time. And that’s what they’re supposed to do. As Rusch points out:
I’ve said that hundreds of times, usually to my husband, after some writer who had just won an award with a story that I had turned down when I was editing for Pulphouse or F&SF, shook the award at me and said, “Regret not buying the story now?” I never did. Editors are hired for their taste, after all, and that story, whatever it was, wasn’t to my taste.
And even if one dozen, two dozen, several dozen people (one at each publishing house) don’t love something, there could still be thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people in our world of 7 billion who would love it.
And that’s why the self-publishing opportunities that exist now are such a marvelous thing. Sure, they’re full of badly-written trash, but they can also provide a home and an audience for things that are well-written but publishers just don’t want. Figuring out how to tell the difference can be a problem, but it’s a problem we’ve got time to solve.
And that’s the Naked truth.