Sunday, October 02, 2005


The Also-Rans

Writing the Guardian yesterday, publisher Susan Hill gives a glimpse into what happens when you put out an open call for fiction: namely, you get buried. But along with the usual complaints about what kind of books made her eyes roll ("Most of the worst novels were written in the first person narrative present tense"), Hill does something very unusual indeed:

Out of the 3,741 submissions, I asked to read just seven in full. Every one of them was a pleasure and a revelation, each by a talented, if not always fully-formed writer. Interestingly, all but the eventual winner were set in the past and several in countries other than the UK. Charlotte Johnston, an 80-year-old, wrote Hidden Lives, a delightful book about a 19th-century Welsh family. Francis Barber Gentleman, by Marion Jordan, told the story of Dr Samuel Johnson's black slave. It was more biography than novel and it did not quite go anywhere but it was a memorable read and I have hopes for its author. Ian Pike is a wonderful writer who sent me The Ice Barn, set in the American West. It was the close runner-up to my eventual choice. I gave it 8/10. But I was looking for a full score and I had almost given up hope of finding it when into the box popped the beginning of The Extra Large Medium or Unfinished Business by Helen Slavin.

Hill gives you her shortlist. It is, in its way, really a very generous thing to do: when you're starting, any public recognition of your existence as a writer, published or not, is like finding water in the desert.

Curiously enough, I've also seen a public rejection method employed in some 19th century magazines. Instead of mailing you back a form letter, a column would be set aside for listing out rejections, often helpfully categorized along the lines of : "Very Fine, But Not For Us: Roberts, Green, Barker, Dobson. Already Covered Previously: Weiss, Phillips. No, Sir!: Lee, Maggs..." etc.

I believe -- though I'm not sure -- that it was Harper's or perhaps Galaxy that used to do this. Our egos are far too fragile today for such public rejection, I suppose. Still, perhaps it did serve one rather clever purpose: you had to order the next issue of the magazine to find out what your literary fate was.

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