They can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors. One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.
Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.
None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.
Sorry, but I'm just not shocked or appalled by this because I've never believed it's incumbent on publishing professionals to spot "genuine literary talent." How could the single-minded pursuit of "talent" be in the best interest of agents and editors, people who have to make their livings just like everyone else? They're not looking for great art, they're looking for books that will sell. And that means story and timeliness will be a larger consideration than an author's breathtaking (or breathtakingly awful) prose.
The literati may grind their teeth to stubs and protest that quality literature is being trampled under the feet of the Dan Browns of this world, but hasn't history taught us that the masses tend to rush right past Art in their headlong pursuit of entertainment? Why does it surprise anyone that the editors and agents in this "study" showed no interest in a couple of novels that received high praise from the artsy crowd a generation ago? I can think of any number of things that were once highly praised but that now make us yawn. Jello molds used to be the stars of party tables. Eight-track tape players were once the coolest things imaginable. And there was a time when everyone I knew owned a dog-eared copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
I haven't read Naipaul, so I must ask: Was In a Free State truly good, or was it just good for its time and place? Certainly many of the classic novels would never be published today, and I'm wondering how much of our continuing love for them depends on our seeing them in their proper context. If we took them out of their times and places, as was done to the books submitted in the Times' experiment, wouldn't most suffer a substantial loss of beauty? Don't we need to be informed in order to appreciate art?