Every year, late January, I buy a desk calendar in which I record the names of agents I query, journals I send stuff off to over the next twelve months. To be perfectly honest, it ends up being something of a respository of rejections. Though I have had some minor publication successes, mostly those little hole-in-wall journals I send stuff to send me back tersely worded (though occasionally genuinely helpful) missives explaining why my work and their magazine wasn’t a good fit.
(Agents, I have discovered, want to “fall in love.” I’ve gotten more than a few rejections in which they confessed that they just “hadn’t fallen in love” with my work. Seems like a very subjective response and doesn’t really give me any information on how to make my work more swoon-worthy. Maybe with Valentine’s Day coming and all, I should ponder how to improve my chances with agents. Perfuming the manuscript? Sexting?)
Anyway, it’s critical that the desk calendar be kind of attractive in order to compensate for some of the grim information it will enclose. And this year I thought I really lucked out. On the $2 table at Barnes and Noble, I found one called The Art of the American Book.
It’s got a swishy embossed leather cover and, inside, gorgeous images of first-edition books. In the back there are pages and pages of four-color world maps and lists of Pulitizer and Nobel Prize winners.
And in addition, there is a 75 question literary quiz.
I was so excited to take it, certain I would impress myself with my literary acumen.
Then I turned to the questions.
First one: “In the Twilight saga, Bella Swan and her family settle in what town?”
Wow. A literary stumper, that one.
Question four: “What was the title of the first Harry Potter novel? The last?”
I think J.K. Rowling is brilliant, but come on.
Question eight: “Who wrote The Autobiography of Mark Twain?”
Let me get back to you on that one.
Jump to number 16: “Of these Fox News Channel personalities, which have not written books? Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, Shepherd Smith?”
Literary giants, those Fox personalities.
Then on to number 22: “Oogy, Dewey and Secretariat have been the subjects of recent bestsellers. What are they?”
I don’t know—cockroaches?
Anyway, if you’re thinking the whole quiz was this “literary” (Number 54: “Which is not a Nicholas Sparks novel—Dear John, The Notebook, or The Sand Dunes?”) you’d be wrong. Nestled among the silliness were questions about works with genuine literary merit. But they were so mixed in with questions about best-sellers and author trivia (“What is British novelist Zadie Smith’s real name?”) that it was a slightly schizophrenic experience:
Was I supposed to feel good that I could finish the partially-given titles of four of George Bernard Shaw’s plays (Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man, Man and Superman, Major Barbara)? Or was I supposed to feel bad that I couldn’t tell you how many novels by Michael Crichton have been published since his death?
Was I supposed to feel bad that I knew the answer to: “He wrote the essay collection Holidays on Ice. His sister Amy is a comedienne and author” (David Sedaris, you silly!), but even worse because I didn’t know the answer to “This Japanese poet developed the haiku. What was his name?” (ooops, just looked up the answer; turns out, I did know it).
It’s a quiz designed to flatter no one. I mean, I’m no dumbie when it comes to literature; I taught English. I read. But come on, who reads Jose Ortega y Gasset and Nicholas Sparks? Who reads Aristophanies and Maya Angelou? Who reads Nietzsche and Jacqueline Susann?
Or am I just not a well-rounded enough reader? And maybe that’s what those agents are really responding to; it isn’t just that they don’t fall in love with my stuff. It’s that they can somehow intuit the I don’t know the answer to question number 41: “What is the prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?”
No. 1. Bella Swan and her family settle in Forks, Wash.
No. 4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
No. 8. Mark Twain
No. 16. Shepherd Smith
No. 22. horses
No. 54. The Sand Dunes
No. 41. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls