From a profile of A. S. Byatt, author of the best-selling British novel "Possession," on The Wall Street Journal Leisure & Arts page several weeks ago:
"Ms. Byatt . . . 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."
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 provincial setting and British cultural references 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 to American standards of salaciousness and greed.
You introduce your hero, Mr. Darcy, as possessing a "fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and . . . ten thousand a year." We might want to make that one hundred thousand a year. What the heck. 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 two, 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 in America. Could we at least say she has "flashing, intelligent eyes which arouse feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many men"?
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. But our subsidiary rights people are concerned that he lacks the sex appeal necessary to interest the Hollywood folks. "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 and a grating voice have been known to arouse feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many women? Perhaps we should make that clearer.
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. See? 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." Your hero, Jake Barnes, is impotent. We like that. American literary characters are often far too sexy for the British reader. By contrast male impotence arouses feelings of warmth, and sometimes more, in many British women. But something must be done about the female character, Lady Brett Ashley. "Brett was damned good-looking. . . . 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 audience can relate to that. But the racing yacht won't do at all. Might we suggest: "Brett was not unattractive, except for a body 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 yuppie investment banker who tortures and murders women in his spare time is an American "bad boy" classic in the tradition of "Huckleberry Finn" and "The 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 and torture arouse feelings of nausea, and sometimes more, in many women. For example, in the scene where a young girl is electrocuted by jumper cables, might we perhaps . . .
On second thought, forget it.