Recently I’ve had to tell a lot of strangers what my upcoming book, In the Shadow of the Lamp, is about. I’ve got a reasonable, one-to-two-line pitch that gives a rough idea of what to expect:

A young parlormaid in Victorian London loses her position, and stows away to go with Florence Nightingale and her nurses to the Crimea, where she learns to nurse wounded soldiers and falls in love—with two different men.

This morning, a friend’s Facebook post directed me to this article by the ever intelligent Laura Miller in She discusses the potentially conflicting skill sets of great writing and first-rate self-promotion. Her examples are the recent bits of big news in the publishing world: Amanda Hocking’s 4-book, $2 million contract with St. Martin’s, and Barry Eisler turning down a $500k deal with the same publisher and deciding to self publish.

Those issues have been thoroughly explored in the various book media and on many blogs, my personal favorite being Nathan Bransford’s. What I started thinking about in the middle of the night was how the great authors of the classics might face the daunting publishing world of today, and give an elevator pitch for their books.

This is not a novel (excuse the deliberate pun) idea: I think I’ve read some fanciful pitches before. But with recent discussions, it somehow seems more relevant. Some authors might be good at it: The ever-commercially minded Dickens, for instance. But as I thought about my favorite classic novels, I had a really hard time coming up with selling lines that I thought might actually appeal to publishers—or even the reading public—today.

Here are a few of my attempts:

An unhappily married woman falls in love with a dashing officer, losing her sense of self and abandoning her social circle, and ultimately destroying everything she holds dear. (Anna Karenina)

A young man is encouraged to count on his inheritance to bring him a better life—without any guarantee that he’ll get that inheritance in the end—and makes a series of bad choices. (Great Expectations)

A woman with fragile health remembers her youth while she prepares to give a party, and a parallel tragedy of a shell-shocked WWI soldier plays itself out at the same time. (Mrs. Dalloway)

So, those are not sparkling and witty. What they do is demonstrate to me how difficult it is to distill the essence of a work of literature in a few sentences. I’m reminded of a famous Woody Allen quote (paraphrased here): “I decided to read War and Peace. It’s about war, and peace.”

Got any good elevator pitches for your favorite classic novels? Let’s see if we can make one or two of them appealing to today’s market! And then, let’s appreciate that promotion and writing are two different things, both necessary to either traditional or self publishing in this current world.