Sunday, January 01, 2006


Happy New Year, Aspiring Writers!... Now Give Up.

Today's Times of London, under the headline Publishers Toss Booker Winners Into the Reject Pile, has what sounds like an awfully damning story:

Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors. One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain's greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature. The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul's In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents. None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.
I say it sounds awfully damning. But look carefully at what they sent. Naipaul's novel was published in 1971. What was an agent supposed to think of the originality and freshness of ostensibly new writing that was, in fact, probably at the proofreader when the Beatles were still playing on a London rooftop?

Is award-winning literature automatically that timeless? I'm afraid not. A case in point: on Friday I received in the mail a long-awaited used copy of Donald Barthelme's one venture into children's books, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or The Hithering Dithering Djinn. As it so happens, it too was published in 1971. And also, rather conveniently, it too won a major award: in this case, the National Book Award in 1972.

Would this book be neglected today? I can answer that with complete certainty, friend: it is neglected today. It's been out of print for decades. And I will admit that when I first came across a reference to this title, I was pretty excited: A NBA winner! By Barthelme! And forgotten! Hoo boy, this is going to be a great find!

It was not a great find.

In fact, in wasn't even very good. Barthelme did a bunch of these whimsical collage jobs with Victorian public domain images in the New Yorker back in the 60's -- if you have the New Yorker CD set (and you should), you can check them out in there. This vein of his work was ok for what it was, but it hasn't aged well, in part because even when it came out it wasn't particularly visually sophisticated. Three years earlier Terry Gilliam was doing this stuff better -- and animating it.

The upshot: I could have written that Times piece, with almost the same headline, and made it sound just as damning by sending around a NBA winner. Because if you submitted The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine to 21 agents and editors today, it wouldn't get accepted anywhere either. And it wouldn't have gotten accepted for good reason. For starters, it's not 1971 anymore.

The ridiculous thing is that this Times piece could have been done well, had they simply bothered to use a more recent work. But that leaves open a question: would a well-regarded new work have been so universally rejected? (The cynical journalist in me also wonders: Did they try this stunt with a newer work first and find that they didn't have a good enough story?)

Listen, I'm all for my fellow hacks short-sheeting agents and and giving wedgies to editors: you'd need to be a writer without a pulse to not get a certain adolescent gratification from it. And it can be done well. Some of you might recall that back in 1998, a writer for the late and lamented smartasses at (no direct link, because the domain's owned by a pornster now) pulled a splendid joke on the New Yorker. After getting a piece rejected by its Shouts & Murmurs section, he resubmitted the exact same piece under a fake "Bruce McCall" address. The result was exactly what you'd expect:
We can now close the book on everyone's worst suspicion about the New York publishing scene: It's the byline, stupid. When the piece was sent to The New Yorker's clunky new email system under the alias, it received not the usual terse and tardy thanks-but-no-thanks but a speedy, gushing acceptance from Shouts and Murmurs editor Susan Morrison. (An invitation to lunch with Steve Martin only served to gild the lily.)
I'm no stranger to this phenomena myself. Last year in the Village Voice I wrote about the bizarre experience of getting simultaneously accepted and rejected on the same day in 1999:

Years ago, back when I'd never sold a word, my new agent called me one morning with great news -- an editor at a certain large Manhattan publishing house was intrigued by the book I was working on. Yes! I thought. Success at last!

Mere hours later, a thick manila envelope thudded through the mail slot of my San Francisco flat. And, lo, the return address was for this very same publisher. My, they were eager. Impressed by their lightning speed, I tore it open and pulled out a sheaf of battered papers. It took a moment until I realized that I was looking at the proposal for my own book -- only, in an extraordinary coincidence, it was one I had sent into their slush pile, un-agented and unsolicited, a full 18 months earlier. This proposal was accompanied by a brief but stunning handwritten note from their submissions reader: She could not ever see my book being published. Not by them -- and not, for that matter, by anyone else.

I stood in my hallway, dazed with disbelief. I'd never gotten anything other than photocopied rejection slips before. But here's what was really strange: This proposal was identical to the one that their acquisitions editor, unknown to the lowly submissions reader, was now praising. The only difference was an agent's cover sheet.

To be fair, that wasn't the only difference. The agent, after all, had also pitched it to them over lunch. But it was exactly the same writing sample.

So what does all this tell us? That publishers like work that looks current? That they are much more likely to trust a friend or acquaintance than a complete stranger? The latter's a little dispiriting, perhaps. But the extent to which this surprises you depends on how much you think publishing differs from every other known business since the beginning of time.

I'm not sure if that constitutes a malaise.

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