Monday, July 17, 2006

The unpublishable Patrick White

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of the Storm, gave the book a new title, changed the characters' names, and submitted the result, as if it was a new, unpublished novel, to a number of Australian agents and publishers.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.

17 comments:

Francis Ellen said...

I can't understand why they keep using Nobel Prize winners for this type of 'experiment'.

Because the science prizes tend to go to people who are (usually but not always) pretty good at science this trend will sustain when we get to 'literature'?

A committee of know-it-all fuddlebutts bestows a ton of cash and mighty kudos upon recipients because of what? They like the books? The books are worthy? They say something important?

The Nobel Prize for literature is bestowed upon someone who represents the least chance of the committee making an arse of itself (which it does anyway).

Better, perhaps, to send some King or Grisham for such an experiment? But did not Mr. Grisham and Mr. King already perform the experiment in real life? And was it not down to persistence and good luck that we have heard of these writers?

If these experiments are to be performed they should be more rigorous. First of all, the phony writer's work should be sent to magazines over a period of years.

Then a novel (synopsis plus) should be sent to fifty or sixty agents and publishers. When (if) rejected, second, third and fourth novels should be given the same treatment (over a period of years). Finally, (and if necessary) the best of the set should be 'self-published' and sold out of the boots of cars and shoved down the throats of newspaper editors and bookstores.

Following this route we could then get a 'real' handle on whether the cream rises to the top or not and if so, what exactly is required of the cream.

We already know that Grisham and King 'made it', but if the experiment were performed a hundred times or more with many writers (using different works, of course) then we would surely crack open some of the mysteries of publishing as it actually exists.

This would, I believe, be interesting and actually contain some useful information. I must believe that if I keep writing that by my fourth or fifth novel I would manage to secure the gold ring.

Even my own paltry experience suggests that the market is telling me to keep going. Out of maybe twenty publishers, approached either by myself or through my agent, I have had at least six people who said they 'loved' my writing but... (and I had more than one agenting offer — the kind of evidence that suggests to the writer that s/he may not be completely bonkers).

Is it not logical to assume that if I can multiply my efforts three or four times that these people will feel more confident about fighting for a writer who has 'proven' himself?

Is it not logical to assume that any strong negative reactions may reappraise themselves in the face of a gathering of pace? Is it not logical to assume that someone in the industry might be touched by the possibility that strong reactions multiplied means money?

These so-called experiments are, unfortunately, always carried out by people with no idea of how the experimental process works, and how much work is involved if one is to actually build a body of evidence beyond the purely anecdotal.

In my opinion, the publishing industry is wrong about me and many, many others. It behooves us to do whatever it takes to prove that to them.

However hard you fight, publishing will find a way to reject you but one thing I am certain of is this: Of all the writers who have found a smooth path to publication very few can make a living at it (and many rely on government handouts to support their 'art'). To enter smoothly almost guarantees a blandness that may make it to shelves but not much further.

Most people in this world must think first about metal-plating their hind quarters and when they do look for something new and vital they almost invariably go for the Calvin Klein/Tracy Emin effect; something that sounds trendy but cannot survive beyond arts shows and wine bar conversations.

I doubt any newspaper has the guts or the tenacity to actually perform an experiment that might have some value. It would take a long time, consume much resources and it would have to be carried out by someone a lot less dimwitted than most newspaper editors seem to be. And the results would have to be properly normalized by someone who knows what normalization might mean in such an experiment.

We have seen such experiments in documentaries such as Seven-Up and Hoop Dreams but in publishing we'd all rather enjoy our myths than happen upon a truth by stint of hard work.

The experiment certainly could not qualify as 'scientific' for it would be impossible to apply sufficient controls, but it would be at least as good as most 'empirical evidence' arising from sociological or psychological experiments; and it may even provide a 'definitive answer' as to what (effort) is required to get published (given that the samples used are fully understood in terms of their genre/ market; e.g samples might qualify for use on a marketing budget/sales and other ratios).

Now, if anyone would like to bung me some of that arts council pork I'd be more than happy to carry out the experiment. I'd write it up, call it a book and wait for the rejections.

marlyat2 said...

Great steaming radishes!

Although I have gotten something of interest out of much of your blog (particularly an understanding of your point of view), I find this utterly absurd. I read Patrick White's Voss while a mere kid, and it made my hair stand on end in an exciting and pleasing manner. To say that White is "unreadable" by an adult who knows how to read is the very sheerest nonsense. Yes, his books vary in quality. Show me a writer whose don't--and who didn't need a few odd forays in order to reach a new destination.

Start with Voss.

Lee said...

I have to agree entirely about VOSS. Have you read it, Michael?

Lee said...

Another point. I'm not quite sure if your equation is correct, i.e. unreadable=unsaleable. Which begs the question, of course, as to what is unreadable. I, for one, find certain bestsellers very hard going.

Brenda Coulter said...

I can't understand why they keep using Nobel Prize winners for this type of 'experiment'.

Oh, sure you can. ;-) In order to make the case that publishing's a crap shoot, the submitted book must be of the highest quality. The words "Nobel prize winner" are trotted out so we'll know the book is Great Art and eminently worthy of publication. Then when we learn that every publisher turned it down, we'll be convinced that publishing is all about luck and knowing the right people.

I just blogged about this: Publication: When being good isn't good enough.

Nick W-W said...

What utter baloney!! I was fortunate enough as a very young publisher in my time in Oz not only to meet Patrick White (a very scary experience) but publish an article of his in a book and get him to launch it. I suppose he is in that strange time-warp when many writers are deemed worthless, somewhere between 5 years and 30 years after their deaths. Process of re-evaluation usually restores their reputation. But please, unreadable? Voss - and The Vivesctionist - are stunning works of fiction. More a sign of declining standards among my former mates than anything else

Nic said...

While I agree that the experiment was indeed a silly one the first five times a bunch of journalists/frustrated novelists tried it, and while I can't comment on White's writing personally, I do find the quotation from the agent somewhat depressing:

'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.

What a colourless world, if all writers wrote to the same rules! This smacks of the sort of homogenizing/hothousing I'd more readily associate with creative-writing workshops and the like (something I thought *you* deplored ;-)). Sure, there are basic standards of communication, but to suggest there's a right or wrong way to approach fiction-writing... well, perhaps that's why bestsellers are so frequently dull...

kimbofo said...

Surely everyone has heard of Patrick White? And I'm another who does not think he is "unreadable". "The Tree of Man" is one of my all-time favourite novels - I read it in my early 20s and absolutely fell in love with it.

Anonymous said...

Does it occur to anyone except me that the agents and publishers in question DID recognise the text, recognised it as plagiarism, and therefore - rather than wade in those murky waters (and, boy, are they murky!) - rejected it outright?

And David Lodge's The Art Of Fiction doesn't set out any rules, it explores and sets out a wonderful variety of things that great writers do, to pick over and use at the aspiring writer's discretion. Not a rule in sight, and worth a truckful of how-to-write books and a tanker-full of literary criticism.

Peter L. Winkler said...

As usual, I'll represent the minority opinion here.

This experiment isn't scientific, since artistic quality can't be objectively measured. Nevertheless, the experiment proves how arbitrary the publishing process is. That's why I'm surprised that GOB reacts to this kind of test so negatively.

Unless Patrick white so;ld his first novel to the very first person in publishing he syubmitted ot to, which I doubt, then his work must havve leapt over the usual hurdles most writers face. The fact that White was not only published but esteemed by enough people to eventually capture the Nobel Prize means that it was vetted more than once and repeatedly survived the process.

George Lucas once said that the problem with Hollywood is that the executives don't like movies. Much the same can be said for publishing. Jack Woodford wrote (in the wonderful book Why Write A Novel?) that an agent's defoinition of a good novel is one he can sell for a maximum amount of money with a minimum amount of effort.

Obviously there would be no point in doing this experiement with a manuscript taken from a recent bestseller or from something by a very widely read author. Some agents are bound to recognise it and realise they're being set up.

The implication of this article and the fact that this kind of thing has now been tried several times, always with the same result is obvious.

I'm not surprised that writers resist it. Everyone who's successfull or striving must believe that his effort and ability are solely resonsible for his success. To admit otherwise makes a mockery of our almost instinctual beleif that merit+diligence=success.

Andrew O'Hara said...

"pretentious fart-arsery" was the best the one publisher could come up with? Now that would be a nice blurb to throw on the jacket of the White book. Or I wonder if this particular publisher would like to post his opinion of the White book on, say, Amazon.com? Probably not...I wonder why.

I get to admit that I don't know who Patrick White is. On the one hand, this is like the tricks they used to do with monkeys painting abstract pictures. In the end, though, I think one could paraphrase the rejecting publishers as saying, "I don't know writing, but I know what I like."

Marie said...

'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.

What a snotty, patronising cow. I suggests she gets a copy of David Lodge's The Art of Fiction (Penguin - ha! In case you are too thick to find it by author and title alone) and shoves it up her arse. An agent! We all know how talented *they* are.

Stop raining on our parade, grumpy boy. All these experiments are for are to make unpublished authors feel better. Nobody will publish my books, ergo I am a nobel writer in the making. Don't tell me the experiment is flawed, I don't want to know.

Francis Ellen said...

Marie, does the experiment make you feel better?

The experiment is flawed but it is a potentially interesting experiment.

I think it's unreasonable to expect publishers to 'spot' bestsellers and Nobel Prize winners from the slush but it's not unreasonable to expect publishers to be able to spot bestsellers and Nobel Prize winners.

Isn't that their business? Can Arsene Wenger spot a good footballer? Most of us can spot a decent piano player but how many of us could differentiate between an excellent player and a concert artist? How many of us could tell a good conductor from a guy waving his arms about? Could you tell a chess grandmaster from watching him play? Could you tell if someone was an Olympic sprinter if they were running alone?

Why is it unreasonable to expect a publisher to be able to do that which they are in business to do?

Sending off the odd random submission is not fair to the publisher but it is not entirely bereft of information either. They would certainly have us believe in their ability to spot a seller.

What if someone sent off 500 submissions from successful writers over a period of years, giving publishers every chance to do their job and at the end of it all of the successful writers remained 'unpublished'? Would that tell us anything?

What if someone sent off 500 submissions and a good proportion were offered deals? Why shouldn't we expect that? Do we truly believe it's all nothing but a crap shoot?

Why would this 'experiment' make anyone feel 'better' and why wouldn't all publishers like to really know if there is such a thing as a person who can actually spot a seller or a Nobel prize winner?

This is exactly the same experiment carried out every few years by bored business journalists who like to back monkeys versus market analysts.

But there are market players who do indeed seem to have the ability to read markets and I have to assume that there are people who can 'read' what books might sell.

'Pretentious Fart-Arsery' is a fantastic blurb (by the way). I can hardly think of a better blurb to catch the eye (i.e. do what blurbs are designed to do).

Peter, you say "This experiment isn't scientific, since artistic quality can't be objectively measured."

How do you know? Has anyone really tried? Is it possible that this is not the case and it is merely our own limitations that we formalize into a heuristic that seems about right?

You think you represent the minority opinion here? Well here's a minority opinion: I think artistic quality can be measured; sometimes. Mozart is better than Snoop Dogg, the Beatles were better than the Monkeys but the Monkeys had a good song. There are some who would rate Emin or Hirst the equal of Michael Angelo, but they'd be full of shit. I've heard it claimed that Stockhausen is great and that Pollock meant every drip.

Sure, it's all a matter of personal taste, except that's all a crock.

Merit + diligence = success? If only that were true. (Do you mean 'talent' + ...?)

But surely if you believe that then you're saying that something 'like' artistic quality can be measured, and has been measured? You believe the cream rises and the unpublished deserve their fate and presumably that the unpublished who get published were simply miscatalogued for that part of their lives prior to publication?

Of course the experiment isn't scientific and could never be 'hard' science but statistical measures could be used.

Surely a psychology or sociology department of a university could perform such an experiment (given that such institutions have engaged in 'science' much softer and with less ultimate value (to the publishing sector) than this)?

Anyway, given that a single submission is not fair. Remember that the submission was sent to many publishers and the layman might reasonably expect a result.

Why shouldn't we expect publishers to be able to spot sellers? Why is that, apparently, so unreasonable an expectaion? Certainly, publishers 'responsible' for finding bestsellers tend not to hide the fact, and they seem to value such 'skills' (should they exist).

One of the points I was trying to make in my original post was that if someone (me, in this case) manages to get six people at different publishers excited about their work but requires say two or three per publisher to actually get published, then what, exactly, does that tell us? I have to wait until the human Rubik's cube gets all the right 'colours' onto the same publishing plane? (Yes.)

This is not about the mesmerizing talents of the published or the grubby dreams of the unpublishables, it is about the ability of an industry to perform that which it claims is necessary for it to exist.

A multi-billion dollar industry owes it to itself to find out if there are indeed any rules of thumb that could assist in mining for new sources of revenue.

Francis Ellen said...

I forgot to add that if any large publisher wanted to pursue such an experiment seriously it would probably cost less than one of Jordan's tits.

Jon said...

I certainly don't want to stand up for Patrick White, who provided some of the most boring moments of my high school career. But remember that these editors weren't being asked to recognise Nobel-Prize-winning capabilities or even to commit to publishing a novel: they were merely required to spot something that might be worth cultivating in a fairly substantial slab of writing.

So either the publishers who lauded Patrick White in the past were wrong, or the current crop are wrong, or tastes have changed and 'great literature' is exposed as whatever suits the fad of the moment. None of which matches what the 'reputable' publishers and their academic cronies like to tell us is the case.

Jon.

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