catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Can Australian publishers spot literary talent?

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Copying a Sunday Times stunt with the work of Nobel prize-winning author VS Naipaul , the Weekend Australian sent a copy of Nobel prize-winning Australian author Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm to various Australian publishers. As the article reporting the result appeared on page one, no prizes of any sort, let alone a Nobel one, for guessing what happened:

From 12 submissions, 10 rejected it and two have not indicated their intentions more than two months later. Seven publishers – including big names Pan Macmillan and HarperCollins, independents ABC Books, Text and Scribe – and three leading agents were sent the manuscript in May.

In his rejection letter Nicholas Hudson of Hudson Publishing said the writing left him perplexed. “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.”…

Mary Cunnane, whose namesake literary agency represents Mark Latham, commented in her rejection letter that the manuscript was in need of work. “Alas, the sample chapter, while reply (sic) with energy and feeling, does not give evidence that the work is yet of a publishable quality,” wrote Ms Cunnane, an agent for three decades. “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.”

Beyond saying that “no one recognised White’s genius” the paper seems reluctant to push too hard a line against those who did not think White’s book was worth publishing. Perhaps this was belated recognition that their hoax didn’t really reveal that publishers and agents miss literary talent.

After all, support for the idea of White’s genius was far from universal during his lifetime. According to David Marr’s biography, White was deeply wounded by the poet A.D. Hope’s dismissal of the prose style of an earlier book as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge”. And of The Eye of the Storm itself Marr reports that though sales were good “the critics were by no means unanimous”. I can’t say I was much taken by Whites’s The Burnt Ones when I had to read it in an Australian literature course 20 years ago (though I liked Hope a lot).

Given the distance of time – The Eye of the Storm was first published in 1973 – the publishers’ caution is more understandable. Novel publishing is at the intersection of art and commerce, and literary tastes change. Unlike many frustrated novelists, I don’t think publishers should sacrifice their profits to their authors’ self-proclaimed brilliance. And it is possible that though White was one of the most commercially attractive Australian novelists of his time, that would not necessarily be true today. There are other authors who speak to us, now, more powerfully. Who knows, perhaps when a chapter of one of Tim Winton’s bestselling books is sent in to publishers in another newspaper hoax 30 years from now it, too, will be rejected.

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Written by Admin

July 16, 2006 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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