Monday, January 24, 2005

Kids publishing novels -- A dangerous game?

Carl Wilkinson reported in yesterday's Observer that yet another kid is publishing a novel.

Helen Oyeyemi, dubbed "the next Zadie Smith", has her
first novel, The Icarus Girl, published tomorrow. The
20-year-old Cambridge undergraduate has a lot on her
plate. There's a play to be published soon by Methuen,
that tricky second novel to write ... oh, and a degree
course to complete.

But should a mature publishing industry be throwing
£400,000 advances at such young people? Can they say
they have the fledgling authors' best interests at heart?

Excuse me? Why should they have to say that? Is there something shameful about the fact that the publisher might be thinking more about immediate profits than parenting this child-author?

While it might be remarkable that a 20-year-old has developed her writing talent so quickly and that she has the maturity to produce a salable novel, what does her age matter in the world of business? Why should we expect her publisher to wipe her little nose and tie her shoes?
Jeanette Winterson, who wrote her first novel, Oranges
Are Not the Only Fruit
, when she was 23, claims that what
Oyeyemi needs is time. "I think the whole publishing industry is bad for young writers. It pushes them too early...."

I just don't get this attitude that the publisher has some responsibility to protect young authors. Publishing is a business venture, not a youth ministry.
Today's next Zadie Smiths, after all, are merely the faded
child stars of tomorrow, all burnt-out and bitter. Or,
worse still, after initial world-shaking success, they are
heaped with praise, fame and wealth in equal measure
and become the Drew Barrymores of the literary world,
incapable of a decent follow-up.

And that would be the publisher's fault? I guess the right move for the publisher would be to say, "Helen, sweetheart, we've decided not to buy any more books from you because while we believe they would sell pretty well, we think you're just too young and ignorant to handle this kind of success. We want you to have time to grow as a person, and then when you've become a mature, well-adjusted writer, we hope you'll remember us and this sacrifice we've made for the sake of your career. We trust that when you grow up, darling, you will allow us to meet all of your publishing needs."

Oh, yeah. I can picture that. And she'll come running right back, won't she?

Publishers are not moms. If these college kids are clever enough to be writing novels, submitting them to publishers, and signing contracts, they're ready to sit at the adults' table. And if twenty is "too young", then what's the magic age? When does a writer cross the line and become "old enough" to be published?
When handing out gargantuan sums to talented
youngsters, publishers are playing a dangerous game.
Big deals plus young authors can equal blanket
publicity and massive sales, but the flipside is that
the tricky second novel cannot be trotted out between
lectures, photo-shoots and publicity tours.
A "dangerous game"? Get real. If the publisher wants to push this first novel at the risk of killing what could turn out to be a goose that lays lots of nice little golden eggs for the company, surely that is a business decision and not a moral one.


Heather Diane Tipton said...

You tell them Brenda!
If she is smart enough to write a book that is obviously good enough for the pub house to want... then she should get paid for it! and just cuz she is young doesn't mean she shouldn't be paid well for it!

Valerie Comer said...

Gordon Korman had *It Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall* published at the age of TWELVE. And then went on to write lots more books that kids that age love (I know mine did.)

No one FORCED Helen Oyeyemi to submit her book. Probably! It's a teensy bit different than toddlers growing up on the set of a soap opera...

Susan Kaye said...

I have to agree that publishing is a business and the decisions are predicated on the bottomline. If houses were refusing to publish "for the good of these young authors," the article would be lamenting the patronizing attitude, no doubt motivated by the fear of raw, young talent. Danged if you do, danged if you don't.

Brenda Coulter said...

You said it, Susan. Those big, nasty publishers are going to be wrong no matter what they do.


Cynthia Cooke said...

I agree, Heather! Whose to say these young authors won't continue on to publish fabulous works. I think it's the publisher's responsibility to publish the best work they can, not to worry about whether or not the author is mature enough to deal with it. As all mothers of son's know, maturity comes at different ages for all of us!!!