Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Literary Pranks

Recently a story in the Guardian caught my attention. Someone had submitted for publication Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - almost verbatim, with minor changes - to 18 distinguished publishers in the UK, and it was turned down. Only one had actually recognized the famous first sentence, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Oh well.

This kind of prank is quite common. Mahmud Rahman told me that there was a prank in Australia recently. I Googled: someone had submitted a chapter of a famous novel by famous Australian author Patrick White - under the anagramic pseudonym Wraith Picket - to twelve publishers. Ten rejected it and two did not reply.

My friend Alvis adds another twist: years ago, a well-established Barbara Cartland took up a friend's challenge that her new novel would be rejected by her own publisher if submitted incognito. Her publisher did as the friend had predicted. Cartland then independently printed it anyways to prove that it would sell and it was a big flop.

Perhaps the mother of all literary pranks is from our own Rabindranath Tagore, who, at 16, wrote a series of poems in the style of Vaishnava Padabali (old Bengali poems from 14th-16th century) under the pseudonym Bhanusingha. He acted as if he had discovered these poems by Bhanusingha when researching in a library, and people took them seriously enough that one (Indian) PhD student at a German university used them as a reference in his thesis (and was awarded his doctorate.) The 16-year-old poet gave us the classic songs "Shaono Gaganey Ghoro Ghanaghata" and "Maranare Tuhu Momo Shyamo Saman" in the guise of Bhanusingha.

It turns out Tagore himself was impressed by another prank by the 18th-c English poet Chatterton, who had passed off his own poetry as that of a 15th century monk. This may have inspired him, as I am sure the (real) Vaishnava poets, such as Vidyapati and Jaidev, also did. (But unfortunately I cannot remember anything by the real Vaishnavites, although I remember a good deal of Bhanusingha's stuff!)

Chatterton got into a lot of trouble for his prank. Tagore did not. Today if you are an aspiring novelist and pull one off, who knows, you might get those fifteen minutes of fame needed to attract the real attention of a serious publisher (or is that serious attention of a real publisher?) :-)

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