Marcel Proust submitted a manuscript of his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, to the Parisian publisher Eugène Fasquelle, in October 1912. This was the first time the book had been presented for publication. Fasquelle turned it down, saying he didn’t want to risk publishing something “so different from what the public is used to reading.”
Two more publishers turned it down, and, on the fourth publisher, Proust offered to pay the costs of publication. This fourth publisher accepted the offer, and À la recherche du temps perdu was published in November 1913, in an edition of 1750.
What is interesting here is the set of forces surrounding the publication of a book—the writer, the book, the publisher, the book-buying public. The publisher is sensitive to giving the public what it wants, which is a good thing, but if all publishers were equally sensitive to the habits of the public in this way, Proust’s book would never have been published. There is also the question of what does the public want? It is most convenient for the publisher if it can be said that “the public” wants “best sellers.”
If publishers stick too rigidly to their idea of what the public wants, then different books will never get published. This is of particular danger for minorities, whose literature may be weakened. Or if “different” books do get published, readers may have forgetten how to read them. Lydia Davis, the translator of Swann’s Way (Penguin), addressing the difficulty of reading Proust, attributes this difficulty to several factors, “one [of which] is that the interest of this novel, unlike that of the more traditional novel, is not merely, or even most of all, in the story it tells.” (p. xvi) She goes on to say, “A reader may feel overwhelmed by the detail of this nuance and wish to get on with the story, and yet the only way to read Proust is to yield, with a patience equal to his, to his own unhurried manner of telling the story.” (p. xvi)
This is important, because I think we are in a similar situation, where American publishers hesitate to publish books that are different or challenging and Americans are consequently limited in what they can read. This is important also because this French writer, Marcel Proust, who had difficulty getting his book into print, wrote what many people say is the most profoundly important gay novel of the twentieth century.
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. with an Intro. and Notes, by Lydia Davis. New York: Viking Penguin, p. xiii.