On the 1st of January this year, the Sunday Times revealed the results of an (excuse the bad pun) undercover operation – they sent typedmanuscripts of the opening chapters of two Booker-winning novels to leading publishers and agents in the UK disguised as works by unknown, aspiring authors, and writhed in glee as one after another, the publishers and agents rejected these books – Holiday by Stanley Middleton and, wait for it, In a Free State by our very own Grand Old Man, Sir Vidia S Naipaul. This drew attention, they said, to concerns
that the publishing industry, already swamped down by the number of new books coming in every day and accused by critics of becoming obsessed with celebrity authors, had become ‘incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.’
The writers were suitably outraged, and berated the present generation, like classical music composers sounding off on hip-hop. “People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays,” said Middleton. “To see that something is well written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent and there is not a great deal of that around,” said Naipaul, never a man famous for Zen-like calm, “”With
all the other forms of entertainment today there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”
While watching elderly gentlemen get annoyed while secretly wondering whether their great novels are out of date three decades down the line might be very entertaining, the implications of the exercise are felt deeply by every English-spouting Indian with a keyboard and a great idea, looking to Western publishing markets for acceptance and survival. On the one hand, it makes writers with an ever-growing and impressive array of rejection slips (like me, for instance) feel less depressed about everyday existence. On the other, it raises the troubling question, ‘Will I never get published even if I write a really good book?’
It’s an interesting question – despite the emergence of a generation of writers, artists and filmmakers in India who are perfectly content creating work for a growing and engaged audience without ‘explaining India’ being an overriding consideration, we still look to the West for validation, and not just in monetary terms. How justified is this outward-looking approach if the West is so insecure about its own ability to appreciate literature and the arts? For every Rupa Bajwa and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi racking up impressive advances and literary awards worldwide, how many quality works of Indian literature are consigned to dustbins every time publishers and agents decide to clear up the slushpile? How many masterpieces never see the light of day because their writers aren’t sexy enough? How long will we have to wait before any art form (except film and music) finds a large enough market within the country for the sad state of affairs abroad not to be a factor in the lives of the artists concerned? When can we stop having our own literary scene messed up for us by people abroad and, instead, mess it up ourselves in our own special Indian way?
It must be said, though, that perhaps it’s not time for us to weep and wail and beat our breasts just yet, if that’s what you were thinking of doing after reading the previous paragraph. The response from the publishing industry to the Sunday Times’ article has been swift and fairly deadly. They’ve pointed out numerous obvious flaws in the allegations, which they don’t think are particularly serious anyway because somehow literature has survived despite the fact that identical exercises have been carried out before – The Sunday Mirror did it with Ben Elton’s bestselling Popcorn in 1996, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross did it with Jerry Kosinski’s Steps in 1969, the Casablanca film script was circulated in major Hollywood studios in the 80s, under its original title Everybody Comes to Rick’s. And Dorris Lessing once submitted her own book under a pseudonym and was rejected even by her own publisher. All these stings had identical swellings – universal rejection, with several possible causes.
First, these submissions didn’t meet submission guidelines, which have become military in their strictness nowadays – there weren’t enough chapters, and in all probability at least some of the agents and publishers simply didn’t deal with that particular branch of fiction.
Second, and most convincingly, there’s this – any editor who recognized these chapters as what they were wouldn’t bother with responding to whatever idiot sent out plagiarized copies of Booker-winning novels, they’d simply send out a standard, pre-formatted rejection.
Third, there’s simply the matter of overcrowding, with most top agents and publishers receiving about 50 books a day. Publishers usually have a limited number of slots open and are waiting for the books they want to come and fill them. It’s a well-known fact that many of literature’s finest classics were rejected repeatedly until they found the right publisher, and so were most bestsellers – think of the 11 editors who turned down Harry Potter.
To sum up the publishers’ viewpoint, here’s Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s dismissal of the Times’ charges, as posted on his website in response to the controversy – “We’re not in the business of generating lightweight thumb-sucking feature stories about the scandalous state of literacy today. We just do the best job we can of publishing the best books we can find. The Fourth Estate is safe for now. Since we also don’t have the time or resources to find out how many of the journalists who pull these stunts are frustrated at having had books rejected by publishing houses, the Fourth Estate is doubly safe. Yoo-hoo, London Times? Fishwrap. That’s all I’ve got to say to you: fishwrap.”
The controversy generated by the Times’ article is already dead, but we’re still left with the sad, but true, realization that a book has to be a lot more than good, or even great, to ever see the light of day. It has to be right, and it has to be lucky. The right author has to write the right book at the right time and send it to the right agent, who has to have the right lunch at the right time with the right publisher. And too many rights, as we all know, usually make a wrong.