A Novel Idea

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Shortly after the turn of the 21st century, an extraordinary event took place in the world of publishing that is little remembered today. Turned down by publishing houses across the country, and pretty much every agent listed on the Internet, the mother of Mark Dioxippus finally persuaded someone to read her son’s first and only novel. That person was a professor of English literature at her son’s alma mater, a small liberal arts college on the east coast. At first the professor turned down Mrs. Dioxippus’s request, as she, like many in her field, was constantly inundated with requests by present and past students to get their manuscripts published. All without a cent in commission, of course. No, Professor Reden, thought, she wouldn't fall into that trap. Not now, not ever.

The professor vaguely recalled teaching a student by the name of Mark Dioxippus. Clearly he had not made an impression on me, she told herself, or else I would have remembered him as quickly as former students who had gone on to prominent writing careers, like Blaine McCarthy and Molly Sheedy.

Mrs. Dioxippus was persistent. She beseeched the professor to read just a single chapter. To Mrs. Dioxippus’s dismay, the professor refused early on. It was only when Mrs. Dioxippus broke down one time while on the phone that Professor Reden learned why it was her, and not her son, who was trying to get the novel published. “My little Mark is no longer with me,” she said in a teary voice. “He’s gone. He left us all in 1999, and this is the only thing I have left of him.” Professor Reden felt genuine sympathy for the woman’s loss. She was, after all, the mother of an only child herself.

So, Professor Reden agreed to read the manuscript, called Novel. It was a weak title, but that didn’t matter because she would read just enough of it to have a clear conscience (and stall for time as well) before telling Mrs. Dioxippus that she liked the story — she really did — but there was nothing she could do for it. Her son truly had a gift (this would require a little more truth-massaging). It was a great shame, she would go on, Mark was no longer with us. I am so sorry for your loss, she would conclude. Please let me know if there’s anything, absolutely anything, you might need in the future. Aside from helping him publish posthumously, of course.

But a funny thing happened when Professor Reden started reading the manuscript the following week after it arrived by snail mail: she laughed out loud. She couldn’t remember the last time she'd done that while reading a piece of fiction. Then an even odder thing occurred: she started bawling halfway through the story. Finally, nine hours, seven cups of coffee, two packs of cigarettes and one box of Kleenex later, Professor Reden finished page number 321 of Mark Dioxippus’s first literary effort. The characters were so well developed that she found herself thinking of them as family members. And the plot—the plot! My God, she said to herself, it was so wrought with emotion as well as intricate (and unforeseen) twists and turns. What’s more is that its overriding message was one that everyone could relate to. It transcended race, ethnicity, nationality and gender. It could be translated into any foreign language and the message would not be lost.

When Professor Reden phoned Mrs. Dioxippus the next day, she offered to send the manuscript to a literary agent. “I can’t make any promises,” she admitted, “but between you, me and these four walls of telephonic space, I think I can get my agent to look it over.”

Professor Reden’s agent worked in the mecca of publishing, a city made famous for the umpteenth time most recently by a fictional newspaper columnist who wrote sound bites for an audience that confused the terms soap opera and soapbox. She told her agent that she had the country’s next big IT! novel in her hands. “Forget about big,” the professor corrected herself. “This story is bigger than a woolly mammoth. It’s going to change the way human beings look at fiction. We’re talking…we’re talking Harry Potter meets, I don’t know, Harry Houdini. The point is, this book is going to do titanic things! And the saddest part of it is, the kid who wrote it is long gone. He left his poor mother to deal with the manuscript. I tell you, it’s just like a man to leave the legwork to a woman.”

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