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UFC 105: Write-Off

October 19, 2009

One of the best things about my career as a freelance classicist is that I always seem to have plenty of leisure time. I spend most of that time reading contemporary fiction, which is how I’ve arrived at my long-held suspicion that in general, modern writing is way better than ancient writing. Way better. When you’re a graduate student in a classics department, you lose perspective. You begin to feel like every extant word of Greek lyric is more profound and original and important than any poetry that’s been written since. You start to view Chariton as an innovative novelist, possibly even the Father of Postmodernism. You come to believe that even Seneca is sometimes kind of interesting in a way. You’re trained to have a boundless reverence for ancient literature and to say nothing against it, unless you’re dealing with something blatantly terrible like Solon’s poetry or certain embarrassing chunks of Lucan. You’re just some unknown nobody of a grad student, and you’ve never accomplished anything, so who are you to suggest that the “love is a battlefield” metaphor gets kind of obvious and banal after Ovid’s used it five or six times, or that every poet – even Callimachus! – sometimes uses a particular word primarily or solely because it fits the metre, or that the world probably could have done without Virgil’s Georgics? And while you’re killing yourself studying for comps and teaching classes and trying to write something that will impress one or two of the less unimplacable scholars in your field at an upcoming conference, you’re not reading much, if any, non-academic modern writing, so it’s easy enough to get yourself into a headspace where you genuinely believe that 700 BC – 30 AD was the golden age of western literature.

But could any of these ancient writers even get published today? Let’s find out!!

EPISODE 1: Sappho

Acquiring Editor: Hi, this is John Shiznit from HarperCollins. How’s it going?
Sappho: Quite well, thanks. I appreciate the call.
AE: Hey, no worries. I just wanted to talk to you about your poems. Some of them are pretty hot, but the ones that are about the gods and whatnot, those are all boring. Your market is women and gays. They don’t want to read about mythology and nature and stuff. No interest. So all the ones that aren’t about getting it on with chicks are out. No deal. And I think a lot of the hot ones could be a lot hotter. Like, this one about preferring this chick’s walk to all the horsemen of Lydia. It’s a good start, but could you add a verse at the end about making out with her, or at least describe her tits or something?
Sappho: Uh…
AE: Think about it. That would be smokin’ fuckin’ hot if you’ll pardon my Greek. You could bring a bunch of your girlfriends to the book launch and we could have you guys re-enact some of the –
Sappho: If I may interrupt – I’m a well-rounded person. I don’t spend my entire day fantasizing about women. Nobody does.
AE: I wouldn’t say nobody, heh heh…
Sappho: I’m complicated, I have a life, I think about all kinds of other things…
AE: Yeah but this is exactly my point: people don’t have to know that!
Sappho: I’m afraid of being turned into a caricature.
AE: Sweetheart, caricatures are what the world wants. Caricatures make millions. Describe yourself in three words or less.
Sappho: I’m a writer…
AE: I don’t think this is going to work out.
Sappho: I agree. Thanks anyway for your interest.

  • PUBLICATION? No.

EPISODE 2: Manilius

AE: Manilius! Good to put a voice to the name! It’s John Shiznit from HarperCollins.
Manilius: Hey, great to hear from you! What can I do you for?
AE: I’ve read your manuscript and I guess I just have one question.
Manilius: Shoot.
AE: Are you fucking serious?
Manilius: Pardon?
AE: An astronomy textbook in fucking verse poetry? I mean, I’d think it was a joke if it wasn’t so damn long.
Manilius: It’s no joke. I worked my ass off on it. Are you going to publish it?
AE: Hell no! It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen! Go fuck yourself!

  • PUBLICATION? You heard Mr. Shiznit: Hell no.

EPISODE 3: Homer

AE: Hey, can I talk to Homer?
Homer: I represent Homer.
AE: I’m calling from HarperCollins. The Iliad? The Odyssey? Great stories. Magical. But this stuff needs some serious editing. I mean, the verse format, for one thing. That’s going to have to go. I was just talking to someone else about that. And there are pages and pages of repeated lines and paragraphs. Are you aware of that?
Homer: Well, it was composed orally over hundreds of years by countless bards. I suppose under those circumstances some redundancy is to be expected. Composing in metre makes a piece easier to memorize, and the repetition of lines and formulae also assist in that process. Keep in mind that these works are products of a preliterate society.
AE: I’m less than fully interested in that. What I want to do is turn it into prose and get the plots into a straight line so they’re easier to follow. I can pretty much guarantee you that the Iliad will be snapped up by a Hollywood producer and made into a killer war film. The Odyssey, God knows. I think it’ll be less popular. It sometimes reads like it was written by a woman.
Homer: Let’s not even start that discussion.
AE: I’m prepared to make you a conditional offer. If you agree to edit heavily and take out the metre and sign over the movie rights, it’s a deal. We’ll print 5,000 of each to start and we’ll do another run if they take off.
Homer: All right. Fax me a copy of the contract and I’ll see what I can do.
AE: Pleasure doing business with you.

  • PUBLICATION? Kind of…

EPISODE 4: Seneca

AE: Hey, is this Lucius A. Seneca?
Seneca: To whom am I speaking, and to what do I owe the pleasure?
AE: It’s John Shiznit from HarperCollins. I got your manuscript. And I have to say I haven’t been able to sleep since I read it. I mean, the Sophocles version of the Oedipus story was creepy enough, but yours is downright intolerable.
Seneca: I am the greatest of Roman playwrights.
AE: First of all, this writing is pretty hack. I know you’ve written a bunch of other stuff – you seem to be one of those quantity-over-quality guys. I don’t know what made you decide to start writing plays…
Seneca: I am what is known as a renaissance man.
AE: Under different circumstances that would be a very anachronistic thing for you to say.
Seneca: You are merely a fish snagged on the barbs of my wit.
AE: You are kind of self-obsessed and gross. But back to this play. The part where Oedipus is sliding around the stage on his own eyeballs literally made me vomit.
Seneca: A true Stoic is in control of his bodily functions at all times.
AE: My god, you’re irritating.
Seneca: You are captivated by my urbanitas. Provide me with your home address. I will send you many, many letters about proper comportment.
AE: This conversation is over.

  • PUBLICATION? NO!!!

EPISODE 5: Herodotus

AE: Good morning, is Herodotus around?
Herodotus: You’re talkin’ at him!
AE: Hi, great to meet you, this is John Shiznit from HarperCollins. I got your manuscript a few months back and wanted to talk to you about it a little.
Herodotus: Awesome! What did you think?
AE: Well, it’s interesting, but I mean – who are your sources? You’ve got this incredibly long intro about how every war in history is a result of nations serially kidnapping each other’s hot women. Where did that come from?
Herodotus: Well, the usual sources, I suppose. Epic poetry, Homeric hymns…
AE: What about other historians?
Herodotus: What other historians? I’m the father of history! Who’s your daddy, history? H-Rod’s your daddy, baby! High five, Shiznit!
AE: Uh… And then there’s that part where the guy and the other guy are watching the first guy’s wife naked. I mean, is this a history or a peep show? Not that I didn’t enjoy reading that passage, but how do you know that happened, right down to what each of the guys said to each other? And are we going to get sued here? Are these guys gonna freak out and sic their lawyers on HarperCollins?
Herodotus: I’m not sure….
AE: It’s great writing, I’d love to publish it, but it’s too risky, bro. But hey, wait a minute – could you turn it into a novel, do you think? If it was sold as fiction all the legal headaches would disappear.
Herodotus: Yeah, I bet I could do that.
AE: Just change everyone’s name and stuff, you know?
Herodotus: I can definitely do that.
AE: Good to hear it. We have a deal, my friend!

  • PUBLICATION? Yes. But not as a(n) historian.
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