A good book? What’s that?
By Hasan Suroor
An undercover media investigation reveals a shocking lack of literary appreciation among some of Britain’s famous publishers and agents.
One of the most enduring myths of the book world now stands exposed: the belief that great publishers and literary agents instinctively recognise a good work when they see one. Stories about earnest editors rescuing literary gems from “slush piles” always sounded a bit exaggerated but who would have thought that these might be pure fiction? Now, we know — thanks to an undercover media investigation, which has revealed a shocking level of a lack of literary appreciation among some of Britain’s famous publishers and agents. Let alone discovering new talent, they were not able to recognise even some of the existing classics such as the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State when these were submitted to them disguised as new works by aspiring writers.
The Sunday Times, which carried out the sting operation, said it sent a typed manuscript of Sir Vidia’s Booker Prize winning novel under an assumed name to 20 publishers and agents — and all turned it down! Some did not even care to acknowledge it. Those who did regretted that it was not something that greatly excited them.
The newspaper reported that “typical” was the reply from a leading London literary agency, PFD, which wrote back: “Having considered your material, we do not feel, we are sorry to say, sufficiently enthusiastic or confident about it.” Ditto another well-known agency, Blake Friedmann. It was not impressed either by the “content” or the novelist’s “writing style.”
Offering its apologies, the agency explained: “In order to take on a new author, several of us here (at the agency) would need to be extremely enthusiastic about both the content and writing style. I’m sorry to say we didn’t feel that strongly about your work.”
There was bad news from yet another agent, Barbara Levy, who thought that although the novel was “quite original” there was not enough spark in it to interest her. “In the end, I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further,” she replied.
Another highly-regarded and prize-winning novel submitted to the same set of publishers and agents suffered a similar fate. Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, which shared the 1974 Booker Prize with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, was also rejected almost by everyone — including Bloomsbury and Time Warner — on grounds that it was not their sort of book. Only one literary agent showed some interest and wanted to see more chapters before making up her mind.
Both In a Free State and Holiday were widely acclaimed when first published in the 1970s, and the former still remains among Sir Vidia’s more important works.
So, what’s going on? Surely, there is something wrong somewhere when the country’s best literary minds — those who decide what others should read — appear to be so completely devoid of critical insight. Even after allowing for the fact that the novels in question were published in a different era and that literary tastes have changed dramatically since then the episode tells us something about how publishing decisions are made these days with attention focussed solely on marketing. And not so much on marketing the book as on marketing the author.
In recent years, age, gender, and the “looks” of an author have become important factors in making publishing judgments. While a beautiful face may no longer be a pre-requisite for a career in films, publishers are becoming increasingly obsessed with whether a prospective writer is young and glamorous enough to attract readers. And if they have an “interesting” and headline-grabbing personal history that is regarded as a bonus.
The “new” school
The “new” school of publishing believes that in an age of competing forms of mass entertainment a book does not sell on its literary merit alone but rides on the back of a whole lot of extra-literary factors, the most important of which is the “marketing” potential of the writer’s personality — looks, lifestyle, ability to sound clever on the telly etc. etc.
Older authors, unless they have consistently topped the charts, are seen as a marketing liability.
“Being 29, blonde, good-looking, and vaguely famous should be enough to get you a book published nowadays,” according to Nicholas Clee, former editor of The Bookseller, Britain’s most authoritative trade journal.
No wonder, there is a rash of books by B-list celebrities while serious writers struggle to find acceptance. Increasingly, publishers also tend to prefer first-time authors — more so, if they are young and telegenic — because they find it easier to “tease” the market with an untested commodity than risk money on those whose previous works may not have done well.
An apocryphal story doing the rounds is that a journal is planning to resubmit Sir Vidia and Mr. Middleton’s novels to another set of publishers and literary agents — this time disguised as debut works of fictional twenty-something “blondes”! We await the outcome with bated breath.