Philip Hensher: Don't blame publishers for failing to pick the best

They are simply drowning in unsolicited manuscripts - some say as many as 50 a day
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How difficult is it to get a novel published? Can the quality of the work alone help you? Apparently not. A newspaper has just carried out a stunt, in which it sent the opening chapters of two Booker-prize winning novels to 20 London agents and publishers. One was Stanley Middleton's Holiday, from 1974; the other VS Naipaul's 1971 In A Free State.

The result was everything the paper could have wished. Many didn't reply at all, and the ones who did mostly rejected both. Nobody recognised either writer. Barbara Levy, an agent, did express some interest in the Middleton, but said about the Naipaul, "We thought it was quite original" - you bet, Barb - "but in the end weren't quite enthusiastic enough, etc etc."

It's an extraordinarily shocking result, on the surface, though perhaps a slight confusion results from their having used two different books with a very different status. Like most readers, I can only take the quality of Middleton's book on trust, since it's more or less disappeared from the literary map. I know from other books of his that, even then, he was a fairly old-fashioned writer, though one of solid merit. It doesn't surprise me that someone embarking on a career now writing in this style might find it difficult to excite a publisher. I don't think much blame can really be pinned on anyone who failed to recognise it.

Naipaul's book, on the other hand, is a very different matter. In A Free State is not just a stunning novel, one of Naipaul's best, but surely a very famous one. It is really quite astonishing that no one approached recognised that electrifying first chapter about a derelict on a boat to Alexandria, and one feels that people professionally involved in contemporary fiction ought to know about contemporary fiction.

Even if, by chance, they hadn't read the novel or enough Naipaul to recognise that highly characteristic manner, you can't help feeling that there are not many days in the life of a slush-pile reader when something of that quality would cross their desk. Something really is wrong when not just one, but 20 different people can't identify work of such conspicuous quality.

But before we leap to the conclusion that it's down to incompetence, or our old favourite, the nepotistic ways of literary London, it might be as well to look at things from the point of view of publishers and agents. They are simply drowning in unsolicited manuscripts - I've heard people say that they can get 50 manuscripts every day. There is no point in pretending that, of those 50 manuscripts, any but a tiny fraction will be worth publishing, and anyone will tell you that, even if the slush pile is read, it is incredibly unlikely to yield anything much.

Agents and even large publishing houses are not places with an enormous number of staff, and no business could pay, let us say, three members of staff to deal on a full-time basis with a corner of the business which realistically may yield a couple of viable projects a year. Viable, too, in the sense that it could be brought out without shaming the house; the question of whether it would be any more likely to make money, or lead to a decent career, lies still further down the line.

The result is that, sadly, most agencies and certainly publishers have come to the conclusion that they can't devote a lot of time to the slush pile. An aspiring author now needs to be a good deal more persistent than simply submitting an opening chapter with a polite letter. The slush pile, should it even exist, is, I guess, often handed over to the most junior and least experienced person in the office, and the main end achieved is teaching them how to write polite letters of rejection by the bucket load.

The newspaper's exercise, in reality, is the exact equivalent of Mr Michael Moore's favoured tactic of shouting at the receptionists at multinational companies. It does seem incredible that the first chapter of In A Free State was so lightly discarded; but one should probably bear in mind that, in most cases, it was only seen by someone straight out of university, ill-paid and who in any case was not expecting to see anything good; someone too, who at this moment is probably quaking in their shoes for the colossal blunder they've just made.

What can be done? It must be remembered that the British publishing industry already brings out an enormous number of new novels every year. Frankly, when one reads a large number of them, it does seem unlikely that there is a huge volume of untapped talent. Most of those which do get published aren't much good as it is.

Certainly, the quality of literary judgement in the industry would be improved if those in charge were well enough read to recognise a famous novel by VS Naipaul. But I doubt we would see any great improvement in published novels if publishers and agents started devoting significant resources to dealing with the slush pile.

It's worth remembering, too, that Naipaul himself, even 50 years ago, had to be a good deal more persistent; that authors have always had to bring themselves to the attention of publishers by establishing their names in other ways, and to do no more than submit a manuscript is to take a gamble on a lucky chance. The requirements of persistence, of slowly gaining some kind of name in other ways, is itself a kind of filter of quality. It isn't ideal; but if there is a more efficient way of discovering literary merit, no one's ever discovered it.