Monday, July 17, 2006

Why Bother Living?

You might recall this contrived piece of nonsense in which a couple of venerable Booker winners were submitted to publishers as unpublished works only to end up being recycled into Dan Brown novels or whatever it is that happens to rejected manuscripts. Six months later, The Australian has come up with the genius idea to do...exactly the same thing! Typing person Jennifer Sexton mocked up a chapter from Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm and represented it to publishers as the work of one Wraith Picket. (You'll notice that this is an anagram of Prick We Hiatt, a lovely place to stay if you ever find yourself in exotic downtown Prick We.) The result of this experiment? Wholesale rejection!

White/Picket was variously dismissed as "clever" but lacking ideas, referred to David Lodge's The Art of Fiction for "its lessons about exposition, dialogue, point of view, voice and characterisation", and advised to attend writing classes for further "critical analysis". Upon learning of Sexton's ruse, one publisher admitted that he had been trying to be polite in his rejection letter. Relieved of the professional obligation to be courteous, Nicholas Hudson of Hudson Publishing proceded to cut loose. "I thought is [sic] was pretentious fart-arsery. I don't like White." White has so far refused to comment.

Anyway, what lessons are we to draw from this cunning piece of journalistic subterfuge? Are publishers solely interested in what is going to sell, and to hell with literary quality? Well, yeah, actually.

"We want to find the good books, publishers are aiming to find brilliant new talent," Shona Martyn of HarperCollins alleged. "But publishing is a business and we are looking at what Australian readers want to buy. If more people wanted to read more books instead of watching celebrity ice-skating, I would be delighted."

Well, I saw Torvill and Dean's Dancing on Ice last week, and I have to say it'd be a pretty damn good book that would drag me away from that particular car crash. But I digress...

Obviously, publishers exist to make money, and they do this by publishing books that sell. How many copies did The Eye of the Storm shift in 1973? I don't know, but I'd wager it didn't trouble the scorers greatly. Yet White was published, whether for the "prestige" of his name or because publishers felt some kind of duty towards fostering a healthy literary culture. Is this an antiquated notion? I don't know, being neither publisher nor published. Doubtless those who are one or the other will have greater insight into this issue.

I do, however, find the hand-wringing, bet-each-way justifications from the publishing industry disingenuous. As Dan Green wrote in the aftermath of the original Times story:

To all the defenders of the status quo in current mainstream publishing: You can certainly prefer books that "sell," that define literacy down, if you wish. Obviously this is where the center of power and influence now lies, and apparently lots of people, even people who profess an interest in books and writing, will do what they need to do to accomodate themselves to this power. But please don't tell us that you're also interested in "quality." Your bad faith is conspicuous. If your allegiance to capitalism supersedes your allegiance to literary values, just admit it.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.


mscynic said...

"If more people wanted to read more books instead of watching celebrity ice-skating, I would be delighted."

Thank you. THANK YOU! I will use that as my excuse instead of wallowing in rejection-misery.

"It was a dark and stormy night - but heated in the Ice-A-Rena - when a miniature, foiled (in shade #42) but attractive host took to the stage."

Don't even THINK about stealing my idea, internet fiends.

Hooch said...

It is not just with 'modern publishers' that this problem exists - Jane Austen's 'First Impressions' (later renamed 'Pride and Prejudice') was rejected without even being read by Caddell publishing company in 1797. It was not published until 16 years later (1813), and has since been regarded as one of her most famous works.

This is just one example of many throughout history, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

How is it that none of those fuckers had actually read 'The Eye of the Storm'? How do people pose as 'literary' without the ability to recognise Elizabeth Hunter, or White's style?

TimT said...

Well, to be fair, as the volume of literature in the world increases, it's becoming harder to be an 'expert' in the field. Presumably, a publisher is expected to be reasonably familiar with Lodge, Updike, Bradbury (Malcolm) and Bradbury (Raymond), Amis senior and Amis junior, Mailer, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Chandler, Wells ... the list goes on and on. And that's just the most well-known 20th century writers!

Still, it's true, it does seem to be faintly ridiculous: 10 Australian publishers who don't recognise White when they read him ...