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Buying and Selling Finnegans Wake

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 800-806 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What’s all this talk about Ulysses? . . . Finnegans Wake is the important book.

Nora Joyce, JJII 743

After I finished my Ph.D. on Finnegans Wake and Jacques Derrida’s Glas towards the end of 2001, I spent the best part of a year revising it before I felt in a position to write a book proposal and send it off to presses in different countries around the world. The process was a slow one: waiting to hear back from a publisher before being able to send it off to another took several months. After just over two years of traveling, the proposal had received a lot of polite refusals, a situation not in itself unusual. Nevertheless, I had noticed a pattern began taking shape in the type of rejections I was getting from acquisition editors: it seemed that they did not really believe anyone reads a text like Finnegans Wake. As a result, they did not think that they would be able to sell a book dealing with such a famously difficult and unreadable text. Frustrated by this attitude and slightly panicked by my growing file of refusals, I asked some of my non-Joycean colleagues why they thought I was having no luck in getting a press to invite me to submit my manuscript. Several of them made sympathetic noises but noted they no longer saw literature students carrying copies of the Wake around campus with them. Others agreed with the acquisition editors in that they did not think anybody really read the Wake anyway. Even before it began, it seemed my career as a Joycean was already over: because of lack of interest in the Wake, I was unfashionable and obsolete. All in all, the future for a junior and as-yet-unpublished Wakean started to look very bleak. Academic presses did not think they could sell books dealing with Finnegans Wake, and even the more sympathetic of my colleagues were suggesting that the project I had spent so much time and energy on seemed to be out of favor with students and other readers.

At the end of 2004, I received a letter from an acquisitions editor at the University of Toronto Press inviting me to submit my manuscript. I felt very lucky, although in my more paranoid moments I considered the possibility that this press’s interest in the manuscript had perhaps less to do with its exploration of Finnegans Wake and more to do with Derrida’s death from pancreatic cancer in October 2004. After all, I thought, something had to have prompted this nibble of interest. I sent it off, and it began to undergo the peer-review process. Even though readers’ reports for the manuscript came back with positive comments, they noted that the difficulty of the texts I explored reduced the audience for the book to what amounted to a relatively small, but global, audience of Joyceans. One of the reviewers observed that literary readers “eventually acquire or look into” a copy of the Wake, a turn of phrase that did not seem to convey a strong belief in the existence of a large and active audience of Wake enthusiasts. I responded to both readers’ reports, and my comments went to the manuscript-review committees at the press and the Canadian Aid to Scholarly Publishing Program (ASPP). While I was waiting to hear from the various committees, I found myself nagged by worries. What if the perceived lack of an audience would be enough to put off one of the committees looking at my manuscript? Thank Derrida, it did not, and I was offered a contract, which I signed.

With a stroke of the pen, I was a new Joycean with an interest in the Wake and a book contract. My euphoria, however, did not last for very long. Worries and doubts resurfaced when I remembered that I was still a sessional lecturer and needed to secure a tenure-track appointment. I wondered if the same issues might arise during meetings with hiring committees: would my area of specialization seem irrelevant? The question, “who, if anyone, reads Finnegans Wake?” would still need an answer. In the publish-or-perish climate of...

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