Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Patrick White remains unpublishable

You just can’t trust the mail these days, can you? Private letters get reproduced all over the place.

Last week, we noted that a journalist from The Australian had submitted a disguised version of a novel by Patrick White (the Aussie Nobel Prize winner) to a number of Aussie publishers and agents, and had then expressed shock horror that none of them wanted to publish/handle it.

The novel was submitted as if it came from a Mr Picket, and some of the (copyright) letters from agents and publishers were freely quoted in The Australian’s article. Well, now one of said correspondents has written another letter, and someone else (namely me) has published the damn thing in full, but this time with the author’s permission. Here it is:

Dear Mr Picket,

Back in May I sent you the following letter:

Dear Mr Picket,

Thank you for your letter and the attached MS.

I 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.

As a result I cannot really give any sensible critique of the work, but what I read left me puzzled. I found it hard to get involved with the characters, so it was not character-driven, nor in the ideas, so it was not idea-driven. It seemed like a plot-driven novel whose plot got lost through an aspiration to be a literary novel. It was very clever, but I was not compelled to read on.

I think you can reliably dismiss all this as the reaction of a dyspeptic and ignorant reader.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Hudson, Hudson Publishing

I can’t tell you what trouble this has caused me. It somehow fell into the hands of the Literary Editor of the Australian, who extracted part of the middle paragraph and published it!! Next thing, every aspirant novelist in Australia seems to have got the idea that because I didn’t like clever novels I would like theirs.

After that came a throng of black armbanders saying that my rejection of your submission signalled the end of civilisation. Apparently I did not have the right to publish some books I liked unless I had read a whole lot of books I didn’t like. Some even accused me of claiming to be a literary critic!

The logic of this escaped me. If I want to put money on a horse, I am allowed to choose it in any way I like. Nobody says that I am setting myself up as an expert on horses and must therefore know all about all the other horses in all the other races. But it seems that if I decide to bet on some literary properties I have set myself up as a literary critic, and should therefore have read all the popular books, at least enough to pick all the plagiarisms, parodies and wannabes.

Every successful novelist is pursued by a peloton of wannabes, and Patrick White is no exception. Yes, you were not the first. But you were the first I ever encountered to save the tedium of writing your own pastiche by providing a pastiche written by the master himself.

The next suggestion of the prophets of doom was that because I didn’t like the writing of their pet hero, I was unfit to be a publisher. Would I really have been a more responsible publisher if I published books I didn’t like, just because they appealed to somebody else? I would prefer to be a philistine than a hypocrite. And if being puzzled by White’s appeal makes me a philistine, there have been a lot of us, including some distinguished critics. Dear old Alec Hope, for a start.

But the chatter got wilder still. It was suggested that it was all the fault of the education system. As I have not been near the education system for nearly fifty years, this seemed far-fetched.

Tell you what: just in case the mail thieves at the Australian don’t intercept this one, send it to a few newspapers and see if they’ll make an offer for it. Just send me the cheque. Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote other than for money. Pick it, Picket?

Yours still sincerely,

Nicholas Hudson, Hudson Publishing

You know what? I really like that. It might have been quicker, and for my part it would have tempted me severely, just to adopt a bit of Oz straight speaking and tell Picket that he was a stupid ***ing **** -- but Mr Hudson is a much milder man than I am.

Meanwhile I am adopting a new motto: 'I would prefer to be a philistine than a hypocrite.' I may have it tattooed somewhere.


Simon Haynes said...

Thanks for sharing, and it's nice to see one of the editors defending themselves from the Great White Ambush.
I wonder whether his letter will see print?

Anonymous said...

I can't agree with you about Patrick White.

I don't claim to know much about him as a writer. I read Voss a century or so ago (at the same time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude). Other than that, all I know is that he is one of the Great and Good. And I'm sure you're right that most readers, more used to Ian Rankin, J K Rowling and Jane Green, would find him a pain in the arse.

I would even agree with your implicit comment that winning the Nobel Prize is no guarantee of literary durability. Who – and, please, I ask this rhetorically! – now reads Selina Ohila Lovisa Lagerlof (1909), Carl Gustaf Verner Von Heidenstam (1916) or Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin (1933)? Who, indeed, for pleasure, reads William Shakespeare, the surprise 1612 laureate? When I sent in a "disguised" version of Hamlet, re-named George, in 1973, the head of Faber returned it to me with the comment that it was "weak, trite and frankly implausible".

But Patick White has many admirers about the place and his books continue to sell. It seems a pity to dismiss him as plodding and tedious merely because these days the deepest literature most of us can consider is The Name of the Rose.

This Hudson chap, being an eminent Australian publisher, should at least have recognised the story he was reading – unless, of course, he didn't read it at all and simply dismissed it after 20 pages. Had he read the White novel? Did he know who White was? The point is moot.

It is all very well for him to argue that he has a right to publish what he likes and to dismiss that he doesn't like (the prerogative, unlike harlotry, of the publisher down the ages). What he leaves unremarked is his remarkable ignorance. Is he a literary man or isn't he? If he's not, to the extent that he doesn't recognise a work by Australia's most famous novelist, that is fine. But let him say so. Let him say, "I don't give a bugger about so-called 'fine writing." What i want, mate, is a good tale well told that will make me enough money to buy a shack on the Gold Coast.

He was caught out. He should cough up and admit it. As for the jouranlism involved, yes it's old hat. But what isn't these days? There's nothing new under the sun, as that tired old fart John Donne said once.

Fair suck of the sauce bottle, Hudderss.

- Jeremy Snippet (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1957)

Anne Weale said...

How come Hudson Publishing doesn't have a website?

I didn't know what "peloton" meant and nor did my dictionary. But Google steered me to Wikipedia.

"The peloton (from French, literally meaning ball and related to the English word platoon), bunch or pack is the large main group in a road bicycle race."


Peter L. Winkler said...

OK, GOB, I get it already. You don't like Patrick White's work. Neither does Nicholas Hudson. Talk about confirmation bias.

But there seems to be the inconvenient fact that there re a signiificant number of readers who liked and continue to value White's work, which tends to validate the article's implicit conclusion.

Dee Jour said...

I still don't understand why some editors send the most inane responses. Some responses are downright unprofessional and (depending on the expressions used) uncouth. It's fair to say that humour differs from place to place, and Australian humour/sarcasm can seem more abrasive fly over many people, but a simple response is all that's needed.

Anonymous said...

Because most editors are frustrated writers, and this is the best chance they get to express themselves. And as long as the supply of potential books grossly exceeds the demand for them we will continue to see inanity, rudeness and ignorance among the gatekeepers.


Anonymous said...

Well, I guess he said it all when he admitted, "Nobody says that I am setting myself up as an expert on horses..." Or writing, of course, is what he's saying. I dunno, it all just goes to confirm what His Grumpiness said a while back in "Survival of Rats in the Slushpile."

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many of your readers know anything about the literary achievements of Nicholas Hudson.

Anonymous said...

Hudson got it spot on. I see no reason why he should recognise the writer. What has it got to do with him whether some people believe in 'deep literature'? There is no such thing beyond that 'depth' with which we, as individuals or 'enlightened' collectives, imbue it.

I'm not suggesting that White is good or bad or shallow or deep; that is irrelevant and meaningless. What matters here is that a publisher read an excerpt, managed to analyse what it was about (in his own terms, for there are no other terms available to him) and decided that he wouldn't be able to make money from it. It's his business. What more could he do to serve his ends?

This type of 'experiment' could be valuable if someone actually tried to perform it instead of kidding on. Sending off a single excerpt is ludicrous; a self-fulfilling prophecy designed simply to take the piss out of individuals.

On rudeness: again Mr. Hudson doesn't sound so rude. I thought his response was measured. He wanted the writer to know that he really had read it and why he was rejecting it. Much worse is when a publisher says they enjoyed it but were not 'excited' enough... (if we knew each other well enough you would have a deal)

Hudson is okay in my book. He actually read some slush and took the time to reply. And his reply was much more considered than the mealy-mouthed pleas (from helpful publishers) to make improvements with the inference that such changes will provide a result.

All this proves is that the journo involved either doesn't give a shit anyway or is too thick to see what it actually is that he's done (bugger all).

Hudson should really be offering the guy a slap for taking the piss instead of justifying how he runs his own business.

This is a hands-on publisher, not a huge conglomerate that gives three quid to Oxford undergraduates to filter out the best and the worst, and make sure that every new novel looks the same.

Give the guy a medal.

Anonymous said...

To Jeremy Snippett:
Well, you would be suprised (even if your question was rhetorical). There ARE still people out there reading Ivan Bunin. Here in the Czech republic he was something of a cult figure, thanks to absolutely superb translation by Jan Zabrana. So, do yourself a favour and buy "The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories" -
from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. And read it. I sincerely doubt you will regret it.

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