New York Times January 4, 2006
Rejected by the Publishers
By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER
Submitted to 20 publishers and agents, the typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of two books were assumed to be the work of aspiring novelists. Of 21 replies, all but one were rejections. Sent by The Sunday Times of London, the manuscripts were the opening chapters of novels that won Booker Prizes in the 1970's. One was "Holiday," by Stanley Middleton; the other was "In a Free State," by Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Middleton said he wasn't surprised. "People don't seem to know what a good novel is nowadays," he said. Mr. Naipaul said: "To see something is well written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent, and there is not a great deal of that around. With all the other forms of entertainment today, there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is."
First of all, let's just point out the obvious. No one thinks agents and publishers are infallible. Not even agents and publishers. We KNOW we miss good stuff. We miss it once a day, every day and twice on Sunday. It's one of the reasons every agent in the known universe (a universe clearly ignored by those flaming bags of dog poop at the Sunday Times) says "query other agents. What's not right for us can be just what the other guy is looking for."
So, we miss stuff. So fucking what.
And now that we know this is one of those specious exercises set up to tut tut about the abject state of letters in the cold cruel modern world, let's look at what they actually did.
They sent two typed chapters from novels written in the early 1970s. They sent them "written by aspiring novelists". Now, what's the one thing I've been howling about since the inception of this blog, if not the inception of the universe? All together now: "fresh and new".
Sending dated writing is pretty much guaranteed a no.
Next, cover letter. I bet they didn't try too hard to make it sound enticing. All of the press reports I've seen on this don't even mention the cover letters. If this work is from aspiring novelists, did they invent publication credits? Did they invent anything to make it sound like this writer was anything but someone writing like it was 1971?
Next, let's just step right over the fact that if any of the folks reading this recognized it, they are going to pass. Even if they don't recognize the actual words as "oh this is from that novel that won the Booker -before I was born!" if it sounds derivative...you BET your ass it's a no. Can anyone say Bear Bryant's Funeral Train? Rejection letters are not the place anyone says "you sound like you're channeling Booker Prize winners from 1971". "not for us" is the only thing anyone says then. If the Sunday Times doesn't know that..well, of course they know that. That's one of the reasons they're flaming bags of dog poop for this stunt.
Next, the idea that they just send it over the transom to publishers is insane. Particularly in big publishing houses, it won't get looked at. If anything, this just underscores why you DO need an agent if you want to be published by a big publisher.
Next, I pass on really good stuff all the time, with a form letter even, if my list is full. They sent this to ten agents. I'm going to guess, cause I don't know who they sent it to, that they chose well known ones. Yup, the very folks LEAST likely to take on "aspiring writers"...cause they are busy representing VS Naipaul.
And last: to assume that this proves agents don't recognize quality is bunk. If anything it proves exactly what I've been saying: agents are interested in what SELLS. Now, I don't have sales figures for these books....given they were published 35 years ago it would be very difficult to get them. But I'll tell you this: pick a literary novel, any literary novel even from a Nobel Prize winner, and "respectable sales" over the course of YEARS is the height of achievement. Most of them sink like rocks. Rocks similar to the ones in the heads of the Sunday Times editor who let this article run.
Of COURSE these books didn't fly. The news would have been if they had, cause pigs would have been next.
And furthermore: from the comments trail comes this excellent point--the people who are going to suck up this article and spew it out in their marketing pitches are those scam artists at the vanity mills. Thanks a lot Sunday Times...you've just made the problem worse.