My debt to The Scarlet Letter

I’ve been agonizing a bit about whether to get rid of all traces of The Scarlet Letter in my sales copy.

I think it might scare away a lot of readers, especially some romance readers I might otherwise attract, and it also likely means nothing to overseas readers. Certainly BookBub didn’t mention it in their copy, and judging from the response I had to my free days with them, they are true masters of book blurb copywriting … not that it’s necessarily all that hard to persuade people to download something that’s free.

This weekend, as I dipped back into the 100,000ths in Kindle sales rank for the first time since my free days (ouch), I started tweaking my sales copy to take advantage of two sections I hadn’t used before, Editorial Reviews and From the Author, which allowed me to write directly to potential readers.

But it could be I’m just making things worse. I added what you’ll read below to the From the Author section, because 1) it’s true, and 2) I hope it indicates that while I owe a debt to Hawthorne, my book is going to be a different sort of read.

I’ve also added more detail to some of my eight points here, since I’m assuming you might be more interested than the general audience at Amazon.

Here it is:

From the Author

I wrote The Awful Mess: A Love Story as a way of puzzling out why three gifted Episcopal priests I knew would mess up their careers by getting into trouble with women who were not their wives. I also wondered about the women who would mess with a married priest. And since I’m a woman myself and not in even the slightest way a priest, I ended up telling the story from the woman’s point of view.

Eventually I realized that what I was writing echoed The Scarlet Letter in a lot of ways. I began to see this book as my response to Hawthorne from across a century-plus (his was published in 1850). So I reread his book, and decided that…

  1. The Scarlet Letter is so much more fun to read as an adult than as a high school senior.
  2. For a book involving adultery, Hawthorne sure skipped over a lot of the good parts.
  3. Unlike Hawthorne, I was going to have to explain how two people with access to birth control and certain medical procedures could get into this particular predicament.
  4. Chillingworth is a wonderful villain, but not at all typical. It is usually women, not their lovers, who have the most to fear from angry men.
  5. Americans are much more tolerant today, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for bad behavior.
  6. Nobody names a daughter Hester anymore. (Almost nobody. I actually saw the name on a business van at the local grocery store this week! It was for some sort of cleaning service. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I was afraid the owner would come out and demand to know why I was photographing her van.)
  7. No child, even a fictional one, should ever be saddled with the symbolic weight Hawthorne loaded onto poor little Pearl.
  8. I didn’t want the same ending, and in today’s world Hawthorne’s ending wouldn’t make much sense anyway. (It may not have made sense in his day, either — people often don’t realize that this was a historical novel when it was published about a decade before the Civil War.)

That’s pretty much where I stopped for my book page, besides the usual call to action.

Do you remember reading The Scarlet Letter? What did you think of it? If you found it a dreary assignment in high school, you might consider trying it again. (Definitely skip that  deadly-dull introduction “The Custom House,” though.) Even better, you can download The Scarlet Letter free at Amazon.

I found it much easier to read Hawthorne’s later novel The Blithedale Romance. It’s an often quite funny novel about a bunch of mid-nineteenth century hippies living in a commune, obsessing about natural food and seething with sexual tension. In other words, it’s about those crazy Transcendentalists. And it’s free in multiple formats at gutenberg.org. If you’re familiar with Emerson, Fuller, Alcott, and Thoreau, you might enjoy reading it just to try to figure out who might be a thinly-veiled portrait of whom.

My own insights into that gang came mostly from reading the diary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife Lydian — Lydia, actually, but he preferred she go by a less ordinary name (!!!). It was loaned to me by the lovely Prof. Emerson at UMass when I was taking American Lit with him. All I can say is that if you want the real dirt on a man, definitely read what his wife writes about him.

And here’s a portrait of our famous author as a young man. Nathaniel Hawthorne was lucky enough to come from a wealthy, distinguished family that could support him (and, presumably, pay for this lovely painting) before he made a critical success of his writing.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Nathaniel_Hawthorne.jpg?resize=459%2C560

Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Charles Osgood (1841) in the Peabody Essex Museum (via Wikipedia)

Even so, it’s interesting to read that although it was considered a critical success, Hawthorne sold only 7,800 copies of The Scarlet Letter during his lifetime, according to Kathryn Harrison’s introduction to the Modern Library Edition of 2000.

This is a reason to take heart, downtrodden writers! One of your books might really take off and make some serious money for someone someday.

It’s just very possible that it won’t be for you.

One thought on “My debt to The Scarlet Letter

  1. After a day in which my book was tweeted to hell and back by some very nice fellow indie writers and had NOT ONE SINGLE SALE, I decided this list had to go. (Probably the mention in the book blurb should go too.) Since then sales have picked up again. So … Hawthorne, darling, I think you scarred too many readers who just weren’t ready for you in high school. Don’t feel bad. The ones who really love you will figure it out.

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