Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Pointy Finger of Editorial Whim

Try getting through the journey of being an English major without being exposed to a mandated acquaintance with certain works described at various times as canonical or classic.  These terms were (and still are) applied to a list of titles considered vital stepping stones to help the student across the swirls and eddys of literature.

You are of a number of generations of English majors for whom familiarity with a novel, The Satyricon, was considered essential.  Written by a first century Latin author, Gaius Petronius, the novel grabbed your youthful enthusiasm because of its portrayal of working-class sorts, rogues, schmoozers, and opportunists.  

Thinking back on your impressions of the work, you find a connection in narrative attitude and energy to that remarkable television venture staring the prince of vaudeville, Phil Silvers, as he became the eponymous Sgt. Bilko.

Within the early pages of The Satyricon, which is in a racy, street language sort of way, about satyrs and aspects of love and sexuality, there is a character named Trimalchio.  No doubt about the possibility of another literature student having read The Satyricon and taking in the implications of the Trimalchio character, which is to say that of a former slave who, through hard work, shrewdness, and perseverance, has amassed a great wealth.  Within the novel, he has given a lavish party.

You can perhaps see where this is going.  The literature student pursued his studies at Princeton, where The Satyricon was certain to have been on the required reading and accountability list.  In fact, the "student," for the longest time fancied to call what many consider his greatest work Trimalchio.  Only yesterday, you noticed an advertisement for the Trimalchio version of his novel.  You will undoubtedly wish to read that version, just as you've read another version of the story in what is probably its earliest form, "Absolution." The author had yet other titles for the work before settling on the one known the world over.  One of these was Gold-Hatted Lover, taken from a poem he thought to use as an epigram.  Then came the penultimate title, Gold-Hatted Gatsby.

So far as you're aware, from your reading of the extensive materials from Fitzgerald's Boswell, Matthew J. Bruccoli, it was Fitzgerald who produced the go to title, but it is also fair to assume he had some editorial, shall we say, nudging along the way from his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

There are numerous anecdotal reports of authors who have seen their original titles swept aside in editorial and sales meetings, leaving them with sometimes grateful responses, other times those of complete bewilderment.

Joseph Heller related a sudden decision to change one of his titles, after the sales department realized his novel was scheduled to appear on the same list as blockbuster bestseller author Leon Uris's novel, Mila-19.  "We can't have two 19s on the same list," was the edict.  "Very well,"  Heller replied.  "You're the twenty-second publisher to have seen this novel.  Let's change the title to Catch--22."

Now, the reality of the editorial suggestion comes your way, showing how no one, not at any level, is free from the pointy finger of Whim.

You'd thought to give your forthcoming collection of stories the title of one of the stories, which comes from a Billie Holiday blues, "Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night."  The publisher has said in effect, "What about The Santa Barbara Stories?"

You want to say many things, all of them indicative of the interior Anvil Chorus resonating toward the extremes of your being.  You want to say, The Santa Barbara Stories carries for you images of dueling shopping carts at the De la Vina Trader Joe's or, worse yet, lawn bowls dust-ups between enraged senior citizens over a close call, or even yet worse, grandchildren tossing up Dairy Queen soft-serves on back seats of new Mercedes-Benzes.  You want to say your first impression was of  intense hatred, followed by an immediate sense of revulsion.

Instead, you will say, "Dear Chris.  Sorry.  The Santa Barbara Stories doesn't work for me.  Let's put our heads together to see if we can't find something with more personality."

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