Invisible ink No 251: The vanishing winners


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We’re often reminded that publishers are there to sell books, not to be arbiters of quality.

Who makes sure that good writers receive public attention, and the industry doesn’t disappear in a welter of X Factor spin-offs? We look to the agents, who can build a career from a single discovery; but another process can make a writer visible – a nomination for an award.

The year 1969 saw the arrival of the Booker Prize for Fiction, and although in those first five years Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Patrick White were all nominated, many of the other nominees have been forgotten, such as Barry England, G M Williams and Terence Wheeler, and even some of the winners have disappeared from the collective memory. Percy Howard Newby wrote some 23 novels but was really only known for two things; increasing the amount of classical music on Radio 3 and winning the first Booker Prize with Something To Answer For, a dreamlike semi-thriller about a conman coming to accept the responsibility of his actions in a tumultuous Cairo.

Bernice Rubens wrote 27 novels, and won the Booker for her somewhat psychedelic chronicle of an amphetamine addict, The Elected Member, in 1970. Several of her works were subsequently filmed, but most of her output has vanished. J G Farrell’s superb Troubles won the Booker a mere 31 years after he had died. And, in 1974 Stanley Middleton, church organist, watercolourist and teacher, won for the powerful Holiday, a novel centring on a lecturer at a seaside resort, that seems to have appealed to the judges because books which took place within rapidly collapsing minds were then very much in vogue. Middleton later refused an OBE because he felt he was just doing his job. In 2006, the opening chapter of his novel was resubmitted to publishers along with that of V S Naipaul’s Booker winner In A Free State. Only one agent felt Holiday was publishable, while no one wanted Naipaul’s work at all. In America, the only book that Margaret Mitchell ever published, Gone With The Wind, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize after being rejected by 38 publishers.

What should we infer from all this? That judging panels maintain rigorous standards while agents pay attention to market forces? Readers can only find books to judge if they receive sufficient attention, and garner shelf space. This year will be no different; good books go undiscovered all the time.