POLITICS JANUARY 28, 1991
Ms. Byatt is more annoyed [with] American publishers who insist on changing English idioms and spellings for American audiences. She got off quite easily in "Possession." The lifts and taps stayed. But, she says, her editors at Random House insisted she make her main character … a sexier guy. So early in the novel, British readers learn Roland "was a small man, with soft startling black hair and small regular features." American readers get several additional sentences, mentioning, among other things, Roland's "smile of amused friendliness and pleasure," which often "aroused feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many women."
From a profile of A.S. Byatt, author of the best-selling Brittish novel "Possession," on The Wall Street Journal's "Leisure & Arts" page.
Dear Ms. Austen:
Random House is pleased to have won the auction for American rights to your best-selling British romance, Pride and Prejudice. We are confident that American readers will be able to overcome the book's British cultural references and provincial setting to embrace its universally marketable themes of sex and money. Just a few small editing changes are all it will take to raise your work up to American standards of salaciousness and greed.
We foresee little problem with the hero, Mr. Darcy. You introduce him as possessing a "fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and … ten thousand a year." We might want to make that a hundred thousand a year. Oh, and when he reveals his initial snobbish attitude, you give him "a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance." Couldn't we make that, say, "a haughty sneer which aroused feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many women"?
The heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, needs work. Her own mother describes her, on page 2, as "not half so handsome as" her sister. The next description is Mr. Darcy's, who says, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me." Of course we understand you intend to be ironic here, but irony -- alas -- doesn't move product Stateside. Could we at least say she has "flashing, intelligent eyes which arouse feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many men"? I think that would keep the reader engaged until the first torrid sex scene, between Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, which we propose to insert on page 15…
Dear Mr. Dickens:
May I call you Chuck? Chuck, we're really excited about publishing your saga of Reaganite greed and corruption, A Christmas Carol. Your reworking of Ivan Boesky, Donald Trump, and Michael Milken into the single character of Ebenezer Scrooge is brilliant, brilliant. And the special effects stuff is great -- sort of "Masterpiece Theatre" meets Ghostbusters, as one of our sales guys put it. But our subsidiary rights folks are concerned that Scrooge lacks the sex appeal necessary to interest the Hollywood contingent. "The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice." To be sure, Chuck, to be sure. But are you aware that thin lips have been known to arouse feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many women? Perhaps we should bring that out a little more.
Greed is sexy, Chuck. That's your story. How about: "The cold within him sent delicious shivers down the spines of the women on his staff. …"? Then make the nose aquiline instead of pointed, the cheeks high-boned instead of shriveled, make it blue eyes and red lips instead of red eyes and blue lips, and a gravelly instead of a grating voice (same thing, after all), and we're in business. Know what I'm saying? Just a word here and there can make all the difference. Don't thank us. That's what editors are for.…
Dear Mr. Hemingway:
We are delighted to have been chosen as the British publisher for your novel, The Sun Also Rises. We're delighted to see that your hero, Jake Barnes, appears to be impotent. In matters touching on relations between the sexes, American literary characters are sometimes a bit too aggressive for the British reader. And the phenomenon of male impotence arouses feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many British women.
But something really must be done about the female character, Lady Brett Ashley. "Brett was damned goodlooking.… She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey." Mr. Hemingway, please. We must adjust the temperature here. The wool jersey is fine; our readers believe in dressing warmly, particularly in drafty houses and nippy weather. But the racing yacht won't do at all. Might we suggest: "Brett was not unattractive, except for a figure like the hull of an ocean liner that aroused feelings of coolness, and sometimes less, in many men"?
Dear Bret Easton Ellis:
Bottom Drawer Books is thrilled to have won the right to publish the British edition of your controversial new novel, American Psycho. Your story of a young professional investment banker who tortures and murders women in his spare time is an American "bad boy" classic in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Our editors read it and thought, "Yes! This is America as we know it." We cannot imagine why no other British publisher chose to bid.
However, a few small emendations will be necessary to make your book acceptable to a British audience. Descriptions of gratuitous violence arouse feelings of discomfort, and sometimes more, in many English women. For example, in the scenes where a young girl's head is surgically removed and when she is electrocuted by having motor car cables clipped to her bosom, might we perhaps…?
On second thought, never mind.