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.