Still looking for the happy ending

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At the London Book Fair last weekend, I chaired a PEN masterclass on the subject of "how to get published".

At the London Book Fair last weekend, I chaired a PEN masterclass on the subject of "how to get published". You might perhaps imagine the event as a cosy chat with some middle-aged suburban dreamers, stalwarts of the Beckenham Readers' Group. Not a bit of it. The class was three hours long, and was packed with 260 young and intensely focused writers, some of them taking notes (in those Moleskine jotters allegedly once used by Bruce Chatwin), all deadly serious about their intentions. Usually with such events at book fairs, you have to wheedle people to ask the first question in the Q&A session; here they practically flung themselves onstage to find out what they wanted to know.

Which was, of course, how to get published. Not "how to write a good book", you'll notice, but how - once they've written something - to get it noticed, read, enthused over. How to get it Out There in the howling marketplace of authorship where fame, riches, prizes and the attentions of the opposite sex can be yours if you simply arrange several thousand words in a certain order.

Publication is the final legitimising of the rampant ego; it tells you that somebody actually does want to listen to you banging on about yourself for 200 pages. What no aspirant writer will accept is that he or she just might not be any good at it. Instead, they fall back on de la Bruyère's celebrated dictum, "Making a book is a craft, as is making a clock; it takes more than wit to become an author." For many, the idea of literary art as a step-by-step, painting-by-numbers procedure is a heartening fallacy.

The speakers did their best to sound discouraging. Alexandra Pringle (the Bloomsbury publisher) said that nobody now bothers reading a manuscript submitted through the post (the famous "slush pile" of unread texts) let alone "discovers" a masterpiece once a month. Jonny Geller, the gunslinger agent at Curtis Brown, said people should allow themselves the luxury of discovering they're not natural writers, and cease to strive. Becky Swift, whose Literary Consultancy offers critiques of their work to collectors of refusal slips, said her strike rate of getting writers into print was two a year. And Clare Morrall, whose fifth novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was turned down by 33 publishers before it crashed onto the 2003 Booker shortlist, told her tragic 20-year story of rejection. Had a chorus of Greek women invaded the Olympia auditorium and wailed for half an hour, they couldn't have sounded more negative about the chances of getting published in the UK today.

All their warnings went in the audience's right ears and straight out of their lefts. They couldn't have cared less. Instead of giving up their literary dreams, they redoubled their cries for information about how to approach publishers. Eventually it came, teased out through a dozen questions. Find out who publishes the books you like. Ring up and find the name of a commissioning editor. Write a letter explaining who you are, why you've written the book and what it's about. Don't track obsessively through the plot or contents. Be yourself. Don't plead. Don't bitch and carp about rejection (like the woman who wrote to Becky Swift, "What have I done to the literary world, that they should shun me like a leopard?") Enclose the first three chapters, no more. Try to make sure they're free of coffee stains and the like. Wait for a reply. Repeat ad nauseam.

Yet more questions followed, looking for nuanced refinements on this basic model. How long should the three chapters be? Should they be sent on a CD? (Answer: definitely not.) Should I enclose a photo? Where do I send my short stories? (Answer: don't bother.)

Then a black-haired woman in the second row asked the killer question. "When," she enquired, "is the right time to give up?" There was an audible stir in the audience, a hiss of breath as if the speaker had announced her intention to commit suicide. In the frenzy of aspirant authorship, there's never a moment to admit defeat, nor indeed to go and write a better book - instead there's the moment to rewrite the letter of introduction, to express a more positive attitude, to acquire a posher Jiffy Bag.

The English won't party, by George

Today, as you'll have spotted, is St Patrick's Day, and the usual traditions will be observed - principally the tradition of querulous Englishmen wondering out loud why the Irish should be able to celebrate their snake-hating national saint, but the English should not be able to similarly lionise theirs.

This year it has fallen to David Blunkett to lead the charge. In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research, he said that the English (as opposed to the British) have every right to go crazy on 23 April and throw their hats in the air in celebration of the land that brought you Elgar, Milton, Mrs Pankhurst, the Fabians and Keira Knightley. He has a point.

One should be able to celebrate Englishness in isolation, without incurring the wrath of chippy Scots or Welsh people. Myself, I'd happily join any parade that celebrated the specifically English virtues of Henry Fielding, Yorkshire pudding, William Blake, Victoria sponge, Holborn viaduct, Ely cathedral and the people who sail model boats on Clapham Common pond. The trouble lies with finding the right party spirit.

Irish people tend to complain about the marketing stereotype that only their countrymen know how to have fun in England (as the rise of Hibernian theme pubs seemed to suggest.) But the English really don't have a clue, do they? They've too much history, and they've never been an underdog race - which is vital in launching a convincing national hoolie.

The ironic English could never send carnival floats featuring Doctor Johnson or the Levellers through the streets. The English equivalent to "the craic" (meaning general conviviality) is the phrase "getting pissed," in all its sour solitude. English children aren't taught to sing or perform alone, so they grow up without party pieces to amuse the company. Offer them a saint's feast-day on which to go crazy, and the only people who'd paint their faces red and white would be the BNP.