Daniel Finkelstein puts a non-story in its place:
The story of the man who sent Jane Austen's work to agents and publishers has been all over the place today. We were invited to laugh at the recipients who sent back polite rejection letters.
But, really, how silly were they?
There are two perfectly reasonable explanations which don't make them look so foolish.
The first is that upon receiving a book that began "It is a truth universally acknowledged", the agents and publishers sighed, thought "not another one" and sent a polite rejection note without reading all that much more.
The second, even more likely, explanation is the manuscripts were not read at all.
I'm sure the second explanation is the right one, in which case the publishers and agents were certainly doing their jobs properly. Many people believe they have a novel within them; almost none is right. It is not the function of a publishing house to serve these people (other than in the trivial sense that they, like the rest of us, are members of the reading public), any more than I have a responsibility to give a sympathetic hearing to an insurance salesman who cold-calls when I'm having dinner.
The man who passed off Jane Austen's work as his own was making a point that he can't find a publisher for his own novel. I'm unmoved by his predicament. His rights are not infringed if a commercial enterprise declines to publish him, and nor are yours and mine by being unable to read his work. Literary publishing is not an arm of the social services, and I would be worried if those engaged in the production of books by their authors, for their readers, were to spend their professional time doing something else, such as reading an unsolicited manuscript on the minuscule possibility that they might uncover a masterpiece.
Nor, incidentally, does it refute my observation to point to the undoubted cases of authors who have enjoyed commercial success after receiving rejections by mainstream publishers. We have a family anecdote on this. Many years ago a leading publisher in the UK commissioned my mother to read a book in German and make a recommendation about a possible English edition. My mother's report for the publisher said - I paraphrase, but not roughly - that the book was sub-literate and preposterous, had been written by an obvious ignoramus, and that no reputable publishing house would waste any time or risk its good name in associating with it. The publisher took note of this firm recommendation and decided not to commission an English translation.
So another English publisher brought out the book instead. The author's thesis was that extraterrestrial beings had visited Earth in ancient times and built, among other marvels, the statues on Easter Island, Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza. The author's name was Erich von Däniken, and his book - under the English title Chariots of the Gods? - became one of the great bestsellers and publishing sensations of the 1970s. He followed it with more than twenty other works in the same vein and to comparable public acclaim. But my mother's recommendation had been right; likewise the original publisher's decision to act on it.