22 October 2012

Lemony Fish

Yesterday the Boston Globe ran an interview with Daniel Handler, representative of Lemony Snicket, which included this exchange about childhood reading:
BOOKS: What was the first adult book you read?

HANDLER: It was “Fish Preferred” by P.G. Wodehouse. I picked that one for its title…
If young Daniel had expected a story about a liking for fish, he would have been disappointed. Fish Preferred refers to the novel’s male lead, Ronnie Fish, and the ups and downs of his stock—not as in “fish stock” but as in “the stock market.”

When Fish Preferred was published in July 1929, speculating in the stock market was all the rage. Even ordinary readers knew the difference between “preferred stock” and “ordinary stock.” Of course, speculation by ill-informed investors was part of the stock bubble that burst just a few months later.

Wodehouse had originally titled that novel Summer Lightning. That was the name of the serialized versions that appeared in both the US and UK earlier that year, and that was the name on the British edition published the same month as the American.

The British edition includes a preface from Wodehouse that explains the situation:
It is related of Thackeray that, hitting upon Vanity Fair after retiring to rest one night, he leaped out of bed and ran seven times round the room, shouting at the top of his voice. Oddly enough, I behaved in exactly the same way when I thought of Summer Lightning. I recognized it immediately as the ideal title for a novel.

My exuberance has been a little diminished since by the discovery that I am not the only one who thinks highly of it. Already I have been informed that two novels with the same name have been published in England, and my agent in America cables to say that three have recently been placed on the market in the United States. As my story has appeared in serial form under its present label, it is too late to alter it now. I can only express the modest hope that this story will be considered worthy of inclusion in the list of the Hundred Best Books Called Summer Lightning.
That preface also contains Wodehouse’s reply to a common criticism:
A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained “all the old Wodehouse characters under different names”. He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled this man by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
And indeed, Summer Lightning/Fish Preferred is a sequel, one of the early Blandings Castle novels. Apparently all current editions have reverted to Wodehouse’s preferred title.

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