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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted: October 11, 2007 05:05 PM

When Doris Lessing Became Jane Somers and Tricked the Publishing World (And Possibly Herself In the Process).


I won't comment on the literary worthiness of Doris Lessing's novels, but when I heard the announcement of her Nobel Prize this morning I was reminded of the worthiness of a fantastic Doris Lessing stunt some years back (1984, to be precise.)

To demonstrate the struggles that unknown writers face in the brand-name obsessed publishing Coliseum, Ms. Lessing
submitted two novels for publication under the name of Jane Somers: "Diary of a Good Neighbor" and "If the Old Could..."

Ms. Lessing was quoted in the New York Times as saying ''I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that 'nothing succeeds like success.' If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.'"

But there were definitely not any how wonderfuls being uttered. Jonathan Cape, her longtime publisher in the U.K., turned the books down. They were published here by Knopf and in the U.K. by Michael Joseph under the pseudonym, and achieved instant remainder status, selling around 3,000 and 1,500 copies respectively. (Curiously, Amazon catalogs both "Diary of a Good Neighbor" by Jane Somers (sales rank 2,434,345) and "The Diaries of Jane Somers" by Doris Lessing (sales rank 23,323.) The clever Wikipedians have posted no Jane Somers entry yet.)

But behind the pseudonymous stunt lurked some devious motives, well beyond Ms. Lessing's stated desire to show how famelessness translates to rejection. As the Times wrote back then: "For a reason Mrs. Lessing terms ''frankly if faintly malicious,'' she wanted to settle a score with reviewers who she says hated her five Canopus novels - her visionary 'space fiction' series - and preferred that she once again write 'The Golden Notebook,'' a novel about a liberated woman's struggle to define her identity. Those reviewers were sent 'The Diary of a Good Neighbour,' she writes,''but not one recognized me.'''

She obviously felt that her two un-Lessing branded novels were fine works of fiction on their very own, and the lack of interest they generated from publishers and the public was due to our celebrity tropism, versus any shortcomings in her writing. And her self-confidence was just rewarded by the Nobel Committee, although one wonders if the Somers novels were in the Lessing stack beside the Aquavit and Wasa bread.

Whether or not it's easier or harder for an unknown novelist to attract attention today, more than twenty years after the Lessing ruse, is an interesting question. I would argue that the Internet and its
ever-unfolding opportunities for self-promotion and sudden onslaughts of buzz-- combined with our insatiable appetite for novelty -- make it easier. Jane Somers would have a web page, a queue of MySpace friends, and
a long-list of questionably favorable reviews on Amazon. Add to that the fact that literary first novelists can break through: Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Davis, Alice Sebold, Charles Frazier, Dave Eggars, and a long list of others have proved that the right novelistic content (which is different than a novel) and marketable author (preferably cute with a blurbable personal saga) can sell.

But if you don't break through, that's where the trouble lies. If Jane Somers' first novel had struggled in the marketplace, she'd instantly plunge into the midlist, where most likely she would be stuck for her entire career, relying on the largesse of writing programs to support her. Fitzergald was half right; there are no second acts in American lives for writers.

A fitting way to tie all this up would be for Ms. Lessing to deliver her acceptance speech as Ms. Somers, a long-ignored author or two abandoned novels who inexplicably won the favor of the Nobel judges. That would be a post-modern, meta-commentary on the state of the novel, and more interesting than anything else she might possibly have to say. (Crap, I began this by saying I wouldn't comment on her literary worthiness).