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Strangely similar tales from a literary agent

The would-be novelist treads a road paved with rejection and disappointment, so Peter Thorndike was thrilled when the Penman Literary Agency of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, expressed interest in his science-fiction black comedy, The Alchemists. Encouraged, he paid Penman pounds 35 for a 'specially prepared reader's report'.

The 1,000-word report, by Trevor J Douglas, Penman's president, arrived two months later. It had good news. 'I have read this manuscript with much interest,' Mr Douglas wrote. 'The author is to be highly congratulated on his achievement.'

But he had reservations. There was a 'need for more attention to character detail and description', to 'interweave a little more personal description of the people involved, introducing further points about their looks, appearance, dress, mannerisms, movements, etc'.

Details, wrote Mr Douglas, were given generally in a highly capable manner, though some 'were rather too trivial for the somewhat prolonged treatment they received'. And while,on the whole, the dialogue was good, there tended 'to be a certain sameness about it in parts of the script'. The parts were not specified.

None the less, Mr Douglas thought there was a 50-50 chance of the work being published after revision. He added: '(If) there is anything further I can personally do to help, I will willingly do whatever is possible, as this is a manuscript that I, for one, would like to see in print eventually.'

Excited, Mr Thorndike bought a word-processor and spent a year revising The Alchemists, which he says was inspired by Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess, 'with a dash of Italo Calvino'. But when he sent Penman the rewritten novel, he received only a note saying that, despite the revisions, it was not suitable for publication.

That was last year. Mr Thorndike, 27, took the news on the chin, and went back to the word-processor.

But then, in March this year, Helen Watling received her 'specially prepared reader's report' from Penman - she had sent the agency pounds 35 and her fourth unpublished novel, The Salamander Stone, a mystical tale about archaeology and earth energies.

She says: 'I was immediately suspicious, because it talked of the need for more attention to character detail, and the one thing I had gone into is details of all of the characters.' She felt Penman had not read the book.

She showed the report to her friend Peter Thorndike, who realised that, as the Penman Literary Agency might put it, his report and Ms Watling's had a certain sameness about them. In fact they were identical. The would-be authors were not amused.

'They're both stupid,' said Leonard G Stubbs, director of Penman. 'In works of fiction, there are certain basic weaknesses, and the same remarks apply about a specific weakness. Very rarely, two scripts have identical weaknesses, so the phrasing of the report can be the same.'

Exactly the same? 'We have a standard part for each particular item in the manuscript,' he admitted, though he insisted that every script is read. And he saw nothing wrong in raising hopeful authors' expectations - 'We don't like to discourage people.'

Mr Stubbs, who founded the agency 50 years ago, has now refunded both fees with a note saying: 'I appreciate your feelings, although I believe them to have been incorrectly based.'

The two authors have complained about Penman (motto: 'Writers help writers') to the Writers' and Authors' Yearbook, in which the agency advertises its services.

Penman receives about 500 manuscripts a year, but Mr Stubbs doesn't remember any big success. Had Penman in fact ever managed to get anything published? 'We had a book called Strange Holiday published by Fiction House of Leicester. But that was many years ago.'

Mark Le Fanu, president of the Society of Authors, said: 'This is the most bizarre incident I've had to deal with concerning a literary agency.' He wants other authors who have had dealings with Penman to contact him.

Ms Watling, landscape artist, is now at work on her fifth novel. Mr Thorndike has sent The Alchemists to Daedalus Press, and a sheaf of his poems wait at Chatto and Windus. 'You need a bit of stamina and perseverance in this business,' he says.