Robert Sessions, publishing director at Penguin Books is quoted as saying:
“This view that publishers won't take any risks, maybe what is meant is publishers are making better decisions, perhaps fewer bad books are being published. Perhaps fewer books are being published that people don't want to read…” (The Age, 21 January 2006)
's Sunday Times tried a little experiment. The paper sent out copies of the opening chapter of V. S. Naipaul's 1971 Booker (now Man Booker) prize-winning novel In a Free State to 20 agents and publishers, changing only the names of the author and main characters. All 20 rejected it. Britain
So the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature is apparently not a demonstrably good enough writer to gain recognition from our movers and shakers in the publishing world. Talent, therefore, would not appear to be quite so obvious in the writing game.” (The Age, 17 January 2006)
So much for Sessions’ claim of “better decisions” being made by publishers, unless what he really means, and it is implicit in his statement, that publishers are getting better, aided by the sales & marketing teams no doubt, at making decisions about what crap will sell better than the other crap in the buffet of scripts in front of them.
The journalist in the second piece promptly moves on to the requirement for luck – pure chance – citing the Harry Potter books, as if they are in some manner comparable to a Noble prize winning author (no offence to J.K.Rowling and her squillions of fans).
The journalist also insists, in the modern way of things, or rather the post-modern way:
"Write something, however, and there are as many opinions as there are readers. Subjectivity rules. And it is a capricious master.”
Good writing and good literature, and importantly, the publishing of such, are reduced to dumb luck and personal taste, as if there is no benchmark, no objective standard in the world of writing and literature.
There is a galaxy of difference between personal taste and preferences for particular genres, and being able to recognize a difference in the standard of writing and content on offer. I would like to believe that someone who is a voracious reader of pulp fiction crime novels, for example, would be entirely capable of recognizing the value and enjoyment of well written and more literary works, even if it’s not their preferred choice for recreational reading.
It would have been nice if one or two of the 20 publishers and agents, whoever they were, had at least wanted to have a chat with the author of the Naipaul extract – not offered an immediate deal – just a coffee, a meet and greet, or a request to see a few more pages of the work, anything at all to signify that there are a few people in publishing who might be capable of unearthing a future Nobel Prize winning author, and want to publish and nurture that talent. That there were no takers is profoundly disappointing and troubling.
In a piece in The Australian, one of the rejections of Naipaul’s work is quoted (no link available; Blocked Writers, Sean Condon, The Forum, The Australian Review supplement, 21-22 January 2006):
“In order to take on a new author, several of us here would need to be extremely enthusiastic about both the content and the writing style. I’m sorry to say we don’t feel that strongly about your work.”
Among other brief comments, Sir Vidia Naipaul said, in response to this little experiment:
“With all the other forms of entertainment today, there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”
Quite so. Even publishers and agents don’t understand or recognize a good paragraph, yet these "experts" are the only gatekeepers of all that will ever be available in the book shops for our edification and reading pleasure, and for our children and our grandchildren. The future is bleak.