A correspondent sends me a link to an article in the The Orstreyelian which proves, he says, that the publishing industry 'is a drunk playing darts'.
Well, it is certainly true that the publishing process is, in some respects, rather like a drunk playing darts. You keep on aiming at the target, and usually you miss; and when you do manage to get a bullseye, it is often the result of luck rather than good judgement.
However, the particular story to which my correspondent refers does not, in my opinion, show publishers and agents in quite such a bad light as might appear at first. Far be it from me to rush to the defence of decisions made by publishers and agents, but on this occasion I think the book-trade folk concerned got it dead right.
What happened, you see, was this. (And, yes, it has been done before.) There's an Australian Nobel prizewinner called Patrick White -- no, not many people have. So some enterprising person (Jennifer Sexton, it seems) typed out chapter three of White's The Eye of the Storm, gave the book a new title, changed the characters' names, and submitted the result, as if it was a new, unpublished novel, to a number of Australian agents and publishers.
None of the agents and publishers recognised this submission for what it was, i.e. a book by a Nobel prize winner, and none of them wanted to publish/handle it. The general tone of Sexton's article implies that this demonstrates that the agents and publishers concerned are completely clueless.
I beg to differ.
To my knowledge, this experiment (with different authors) has been done at least four times before during the last thirty years. Most recently it was done by the Sunday Times, in January this year. I wasn't impressed by the Sunday Times's effort, and said so at some length. Neither am I impressed by this latest Australian one, which is just a crib of the ST story. Not even original, and further evidence of the decline in journalistic standards.
In short, I would have to say, in my humble opinion, that this kind of exercise proves far less than those undertaking it seem to imagine.
In the first place, Patrick White is well nigh unreadable. If he was Grisham-like readable, he wouldn't have won the Nobel prize. Stands to reason. And if he's not easy to read, he won't sell.
Secondly, I would be willing to bet that you could choose the right passage from The Da Vinci Code, change some of the details, and show it to a few professionals, including those who had actually read the book, and they still wouldn't recognise it. Why should anyone expect them to? We don't all have photographic memories.
Third, anyone who knows anything about modern publishing knows that it's a business. It is designed to make money. And you don't make money by publishing books that are damned heavy going. In a discussion of the Jennifer Sexton article, the Literary Saloon makes the point that American publishers don't want to publish Patrick White's books even when they do know that he's the author, and I can't say that I'm remotely surprised.
Given that context, the comments made by publishers and agents on the disguised White submission seem to me to be thoroughly sensible. Here are a few:
'We regret that we cannot make an offer for publication. Why? The first and easy answer is that we try to curb all desire to publish novels. This is a matter of self-preservation: the Harold Park Trots are by comparison a rational way of earning a living.' Nicholas Hudson of Hudson Publishing.
'I thought it was pretentious fart-arsery,' he added later, when questioned about his rejection of the submission -- which sounds about right to me.
'I suggest you get a copy of David Lodge's The Art of Fiction (Penguin) and absorb its lessons about exposition, dialogue, point of view, voice and characterisation.' Mary Cunnane, agent. Actually that would be damn good advice for quite a few literary writers, including Nobel prize winners.
No, sorry, I am not averse to tweaking people's tails and having a quiet laugh at their expense, when appropriate, but on this occasion I think the book-trade personnel involved have demonstrated excellent judgement.