Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dear Ms. Christie, I regret to say...

Sandra Parshall

As Agatha Christie’s 120th birthday (September
15) approaches, her genteel puzzle mysteries remain popular and British television regularly turns out new versions of the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories. Years after her death in the late 1970s, Christie is probably the most well-known mystery writer the world has ever produced. In a recent discussion on DorothyL, though, someone raised the question of whether she would be able to get her books published if she were writing them in today’s market.

True, if Christie were writing now she might be writing a different kind of story. But maybe not – well into the 1970s, after all the world-changing turmoil of the Vietnam era, she was still turning out the same kind of books she wrote decades earlier. By then she was a legend and everything she wrote was enjoyed as a “classic” mystery. If she were unknown, though, and submitting her work for the first time to major publishers, how would they receive it?

I don’t know much about British publishing, but I can imagine what New York editors might say about a Miss Marple mystery – in their rejection letters. (This is assuming, of course, that Christie could find an agent in today’s publishing climate.)

Editor #1:

“There’s a lot to like about this, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in love with it. I’m not sure Jane Marple is a strong enough character to carry a series. She would be more intriguing if she were fleshed out a bit. For one thing, I think she needs an occupation (as it is, she doesn’t have any visible means of support), perhaps as a bookseller or manager of a yarn store.”

Editor #2:

“Sad to say, I just didn’t fall in love with this. However, I think it has promise, and I would be willing to take another look if the author would play up the knitting hook and make Jane part of a knitting circle that gets involved in murder investigations. And, of course, a knitting pattern should be included.”

Editor #3:

“I enjoyed reading this, but in the end I just didn’t fall in love with it. It has an old-fashioned vibe that I don’t think would appeal to our target audience. I’d be willing to reconsider if the author made some changes. For example, Agatha might make Jane younger – no more than 35 – and divorced from a sexy, bad-boy type who keeps trying to reignite the flame. A daughter would add interest – a precocious pre-teen who’s growing up too fast, perhaps. That would offer an opportunity for a plot about kids getting into trouble on the internet.”

Editor #4:

“The puzzle is clever, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in love with Jane. Senior protagonists have limited appeal, and to gain an audience they must be exceptional. Jane is very bland. I was hoping she would be more surprising and funny – sort of a Grandma Mazur type. Giving her a young sidekick to play off would help – maybe a teenage granddaughter who’s into Goth, wears black lipstick, has multiple piercings and is fascinated by crime.”

Editor #5:

“I tried to fall in love with this, but alas, I could not. The story doesn’t have the suspense and action that would keep readers turning pages. I never felt that Jane Marple was in danger, and the ending is much too quiet.”

Editor #6:

“The mystery is interesting, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with the writing style. It lacks the snap and sparkle I’m looking for.”

And after six rejections, most agents would give up. Miss Marple would never see print. I don’t even want to think about the reception the fussy little Belgian Hercule Poirot would get if he were presented for the very first time to today’s mystery editors.


David Cranmer said...

I'm betting (could be wrong, I guess) the young Ms. Christie would find a niche and fit in. She was an extraordinary talent.

I've read maybe one misfire in the dozens of books I've read.

Anonymous said...

I like your premise (though I think Dame Agatha would find success today since the genre seems to be formula bound lately), but take it a step further.

Could contemporary name authors get published today without their names? Can you imagine Stephen King (or anyone similar) trying to publish his latest using a pen name no one had ever heard of? If he were blindly sending out to agents without using his name recognition, would he get any notice? Or would he wind up rejected?

Sheila Connolly said...

You nailed it (do you have a file of rejection letters to refer to? I know I do).

Which does not explain why Christie's books continue not only to remain in print but also to sell. Are they regarded as quaint historicals now? Or do the stories, the settings, and even the characters still resonate with modern readers?

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, of course I have a file of rejection letters. Doesn't every writer? (I don't want to hear about those who don't!)That ubiquitous "didn't fall in love with it" line has always made me grit my teeth.

I think Christie's books are like comfort food to a lot of mystery fans (but I also think British TV has helped enormously in keeping them alive). They aren't laden with a lot of violence and gore, and the endings are sedate, civilized. Most of the time the villains give up peacefully, nobody gets hurt in the climax, and justice is done. A lot of people like the period settings too.

I wonder, though, if many younger readers are familiar with her work. Is it only the older readers who continue to enjoy her books and stories and the TV dramatizations of them? Will her popularity fade as older fans die?

Sandra Parshall said...

Paul, it seems to me that King is writing what today's market wants. And he is a gifted writer -- no one should dismiss his talent because he chooses most of the time to write horror.

Many of the top-selling writers today have risen to fame recently and in the current market (Charlaine Harris, for example), and I don't think they would have trouble getting published if they were just starting. I don't know, though, about some established writers who have been publishing for many years. They might encounter resistance.

Susan Schreyer said...

Oh, Sandy, I'm dying here! Thank goodness I swallowed my coffee or I'd be spitting it all over my computer! Too, too funny (and I swear you've been reading my rejection letters..."I just didn't fall in love...." ). What's even funnier is that I'm certain you're exactly right...wait, maybe that's not so funny!

Laura DiSilverio said...

Hah! Very funny, Sandy. Surely one of the editors would suggest Christie give Miss Marple a cat to talk to and help with the sleuthing.

Kaye George said...

I have SO many of those "fall in love with" comments! Does a shoe salesman have to fall in love with the shoes in order to sell them? Does the grocer love every food he sells?

I've always wondered why on earth an agent has to fall in love with something in order to sell it. If an agent knows how to sell a book that has a market, they should sell it. This business is SO unbusiness-like!

Cindy Sample said...

I unfortunately was sipping my coffee when I read your blog so does anyone know of a good cleaner for a laptop keyboard? Great blog and who can't relate to that famous "I didn't quite love your book" line except maybe Dame Agatha herself. Thanks for making my day.

Patg said...

Of course, I love anything Christie, so loved your blog. I've read all her Marples and Poirots at least 3 times each. Tommy and Tuppence and Parker Pine, not so much. The thought of her trying to get The Mysterious Affair At Stiles published makes me laugh. Never mind the 'in love' crap, I think she'd get a flat out 'no one would read this' letter. Who could care about a fussy little man with no sex appeal and worse than a busybody, a know-it-all? The very thing readers love, publishers would hate.
The 'in love' comments are annoying and teeth gritting, but when they also say that they could never sell a work, I really want to scream. I think statements like that simply mean they have the top 6 publishing companies in NY in mind and nothing else.

Jeffrey Marks said...


Your premise makes the rather large supposition that Agatha Christie was dumb as a box of rocks. She was very market savvy, and wrote novels that were similar and yet superior to those on the market at the time.

Why would one suppose that if she lived today, she would write something that was popular 70 years ago? She would write (as she did then) novels that were similar to the market now and still superior to them. I have no doubt that she would be published. As I said on DL, there's a movement afoot to minimize Christie's talent, and it is not warranted.

Her books did evolve over time. Her books from the 1920-1930s were not the same as those after the war. Even those into the late 1960s were different than those of the 1950s (and she did not live into the late 1970s, dying in January 1976).

Unknown said...

Very clever and entertaining post, Sandy. Easy to see why agents are agents and not writers, as they turn out cliche-ridden rejections.

Christie was a career writer--she'd have rolled with the punches. If she were writing now, she would have been born in the 1950s or 1960s or later.

Jane Marple was, to my way of thinking, the original Profiler. I just love her to death.

Ellis Vidler said...

Too funny! I laughed out loud at the rejections for Ms. Christie. Very good.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm glad I gave so many people a laugh today, and sorry Jeffrey thinks I'm making fun of Ms. Christie. Instead, I was poking fun at the publishing industry and its love of up-to-the-minute trends.

Of course if Christie were a young woman writing today she would be writing somewhat differently -- she would be writing cozies, I'm sure, but she would be writing what the market wants. My point is that the books she DID write are still popular, still selling, still being made into TV dramas, yet I doubt they would be considered marketable by agents and editors working in the industry now. She was undeniably the queen of mystery and will be as long as her work is read and appreciated.

Sandy Cody said...

Never mind your file of rejections - I feel like you copied mine. I guess I should feel good about having something in common with a classic author.

Kerrie said...

Sandra, would you (or anybody else for that matter) like to be part of the Agatha Christie Blog Tour during September? There are a few spots still available. Check it out here, the blog tour list is about 3/4 down the page. Either leave me a message on ACRC or here (I've marked to get email follow-up comments) You'll see that I have put this post in the headlines/list.

Anonymous said...

Sandra - What an interesting thing to think about. It's so interesting how Christie's books resonate so well after all this time, although of course, times have changed. I believe it's because her books speak to larger themes and questions that transcend time. Also, she wrote some really brilliant, challenging mysteries. If a mystery challenges one, it doesn't matter how long ago it was written.

Peg Cochran said...

Great blog, Sandy! I can just imagine it...

G.M. Malliet said...

Sandy: Agatha was all about the puzzle and I think she would have a very, very hard time getting published today. They would want to give her, as you say, a youthful sidekick, a cozy career, or a drinking problem (too much dandelion wine, perhaps) - some gimmick to make her "interesting." Thus ruining what was always sublimely pared down and perfect as it was.

Remember the attempt at giving Miss Marple more back story - a married lover - when they filmed some of the books awhile back?

Thanks for such a thoughtful and very amusing post!

Kerrie said...

Hello GM - that element actual did appear in one of the Marple books - it wasn't made up by the TV writers.

Natasha said...

I was snorting throughout the post. Fell in love with Miss Marple a quarter of a century back, and discovered cozy mysteries only a month back, and am confident Jane Marple can take on the cozy sleuths with her eyes closed.
Fantastic post.

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