Saturday, July 15, 2006

CHAPTER THREE ... in which St Patrick buys the How-To book


Where to begin an analysis, a commentary, or even just an incredulous expostulation in response to this?

For those who haven't already read the original paper article or the cut-down online version, here's the cartoon version: in imitation of a similar British hoax involving V.S. Naipaul, someone from The Australian -- possibly Jennifer Sexton, author of the article, who does not say who set this sting up -- sent Chapter 3 of Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm to twelve Australian publishers and agents, changing the names of the characters, re-titling the novel The Eye of the Cyclone (oh, dear; surely they could have been a bit witty about it, at least) and submitting the MS under a name manifestly not a real one, but an anagram of PATRICK WHITE.

('Wraith Picket', forsooth; why didn't they just call him Keith Crapwit and be done with it?)

Two publishers/agents have not yet replied, after three months, and the other ten all turned it down. Some suggested that St Patrick should read David Lodge's How-To book, and others that he should join a writers' centre. (He would have abominated how-to books and writers' centres.)

The chapter in question was one of the least typical bits, and I'm sorry to say probably one of the least successful bits, of White's writing that I can think of, short of his first two novels Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead, in which he was merely clearing his throat.

The offending chapter is smack in the middle of the action, jumps around chronologically, and, most atypically for White, is pretty much all narrated in free indirect discourse, reflecting the thought processes of the deeply awful character and the kind of language he would use.

I can't work out which is the worst:

(a) the bad faith of the entrapment, the smugness of its aftermath, and the shabby (and incoherent, as Jeff Sparrow points out in this excellent piece) reactionary agenda behind the exercise,

(b) the failure of the agents and publishers' readers who rejected the chapter to recognise either the actual novel or, at the very least, White's unique, highly spottable style, and the incontrovertible evidence it provides that people getting jobs in Australian publishing houses have clearly not seen fit to make it their business to read a little Australian writing, or

(c) the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections.

I could just cry. And I would, if this episode were not, in its own toxic way, so funny. Not one person or organisation comes out of this particularly well, except perhaps Michael Heyward from Text (no surprises there; Heyward has been one of the class acts of Australian publishing for twenty years), who expressed concern that it had happened and the opinion that publishers needed to be kept on their toes -- unlike everyone else quoted, who toughed it out so brazenly they would have made Pats and Eddie proud.

And maybe Patrick White himself, of course. And he, poor old poppet, is past caring. Or so one hopes.

UPDATE: More at Larvatus Prodeo.

13 comments:

tigtog said...

Nice piece, Kerryn. Just saw it republished in Crikey - good job. The Oz is truly cynical on this prank (as they so often are regarding kulcha).

KLG said...

T'anks, TT. I don't know how many of the publishers and agents Crikey followed up, but I found it very interesting that the two from the list that I have the most time for (apart from Michael Heyward himself), namely Mary Cunnane and Aviva Tuffield, gave what I thought were excellent and rational responses. I'm completely outraged that the Lodge book Sexton was referring to was in fact The Art of the Novel, a good solid bit of early-Lodge lit crit, of which, as Cunnane points out, Sexton obviously knew nothing.

Lucy Tartan said...

I would like to hear your thoughts on Mary Cunnane's remarks about education and syllabi. I don't quite know what to make of them. She could be read as saying that the reason the hoax wasn't detected is partly to do with such books slipping off the educational agenda.

I may as well come out and say that one reason I'm inclined to be a bit crook on the publishers' part in this is that I recently applied for and didn't get an entry-level editorial job at one of our big publishers; it was put to me that I lacked the kind of experience required and having read a lot of books & thought about them didn't really make up for that.

KLG said...

I think that's exactly what she meant, and it is, for a number of reasons, true. (See the Nick Jose article in Australian Book Review November 2005 that this blog's title is pinched from.)

Hmmm ... I need to be diplomatic all round for reasons I'm sure you appreciate, but I do actually see everyone's side of this affair, except of course those whose agenda is to dumb down a complex issue as well as crow about nasty lefty eductional and cultural agendas. I do think 'entrapment' is the right word, and I also think that if you have to resort to cheap tricks then it must be because you can't put your own case sufficiently strongly in straight argument.

I do feel sorry for the victims, erm, publishers and agents, several of whom I know and like -- but I'm also completely gobsmacked that nobody recognised it. I can safely say that I would have in a heartbeat, and you obviously would have too, and so would Peter Rose from ABR whom I saw and talked to about it the day the article came out. If not the passage itself, then certainly the style. And as Lucy Sussex has pointed out over at Leftwrites, the pseudonym anagram if nothing else should have alerted them to something whiffy.

If you didn't get that job, Laura, then that is the publishers' loss. But you're one of the people who should be writing the books, not processing them.

Especially not at that rate of pay.

Ampersand Duck said...

yeah, Laura, I'm with KLG on that one.

greg said...

Drawing upon my experience in it over the last 30+ years, it occurs to me that the music business, along with the rest of the consumer culture, is obsessed with the latest thing, be it sound, image, or concept, and it’s accelerating at an exponential rate. Things have a short shelf life unless they are of a very high standard, therefore anybody with a new product or property has a reasonable chance of accessing decision makers with their art. How many unknown Aussie bands have gone on to huge overseas success from virtually nowhere in the last few years?

Publishing seems to be the exact opposite: a major literary agent in this country has informed me that: “Titles that have already been self-published and distributed (even to a limited number of stores) are almost impossible to sell to a publisher.” this doesn’t make business sense. Would a record company refuse to listen to a demo CD on the grounds that the band had broken some unspoken rule by recording it in the first place? No, the people they hire to specifically do so would listen to it, especially if it had sold well, and make a decision.

You only have to look at any major publishing house website to see that the system is heavily stacked against new product even being considered. There’s no risk-taking culture at all, which is why bookshops feature scads of titles on the same thing: bourgeois twits have a year in Provence, quirky travel books by ex-journos that say nothing much about anything except themselves, heartrending but colourful family histories over 3 generations or whatever, 57 varieties of serial killer, interminable police procedurals...I could go on and on. Literary agents are the gatekeepers of this mindset, and know it. Therefore a culture of arrogance and rudeness seems to pervade their general dealings with those they see as not conforming to the status quo, which generally means those they don’t know or aren’t published. Whether or not this is some sort of Darwinian exercise is debatable, but the attitude of the industry seems to be running counter to the trends in general society…I wonder if it’s healthy in the long term.

mary cunnane said...

I thought I'd weigh in here to thank KLG for her kind words about "having some time for me." (And to gently point out to her that no, the book that I referred Wraith Picket to wasn't David Lodge's THE ART OF THE NOVEL, it was indeed THE ART OF FICTION.Perhaps she is thinking of Milan Kundera's THE ART OF THE NOVEL?)

Let me also make some other points about her "gobsmackedness". Let's assume that any of the 12 publishers and agents -- including Michael Heyward -- had read this out-of-sequence chapter (accompanied by a very strange covering letter with no synopsis) and recognized it as White or White-like. What should our responses have been:

1) This is a hoax: we're being set up by someone. Let's not reply.

2) Dear Wraith: It's not nice to plagiarize Patrick White.

3) Dear Wraith: You are a Patrick White wanna' be and you need to learn something about fiction writing rather than simply doing a PW riff.

As I said in the Australian, I make no apologies for my response to Picket. KLG can now -- in hindsight -- say she would have recognized the chapter in a heartbeat, as would, she reports, Peter Rose. Good on her. And him. But the world of publishing is not the world of the academy. It's a bit more grounded --it has to be --
in commercial reality. The people in publishing are generally characterized by their passion for books and writing, as well as by some humility. Anyone who has worked for any length of time in the business can point to commercially and/or critically successful books that they have, for one reason or another, declined.

The best thing to come out the News Limited stunt is a vigorous discussion about Australian literature, its availability -- or not --in print, and its importance to the nation.

KLG said...

Hi Mary, yes, I don't blame you for being cross, but not necessarily with me. I'm sorry if you think I sounded patronising, which I certainly didn't intend to do. I do think it's a pity you've ignored the positive remarks.

Unlike you (presumably), I really love Patrick White, and have read all of the novels several times, which is no more than might be expected of an ex (NB ex) Aust Lit lecturer who wrote a third of her thesis about them, and so does P Rose, so it was just a statement of fact about a conversation we'd had. He and I are both of a generation that were, like, Sensitive Australian Teenagers in Small Cities when PW's rep was at its height and he was doing something that had never been done in Australia before. You would have to have been here in the late 60s/early 70s to know what that was actually like, or what a saviour White seemed. And The Eye of the Storm is one of my favourites, too.

I'm a bit surprised that you think the academy isn't 'grounded', especially these days. And you seem to be accusing me of something I haven't actually done, which is to deride financial considerations. I was actually deriding exclusively financial considerations, which is very different. Meanwhile I have actually been out of the university for eight and a half years, making a precarious living as a freelance writer, so don't think I don't think about financial concerns. I think about them every day.

Yep, David Lodge's The Art of Fiction, like I almost said. I was actually conflating EM Forster's Aspects of the Novel with Lodge's The Art of Fiction, not thinking of Kundera at all. It's a blog, one makes blues. I'll leave it there, tempted as I am to edit it. I am an idiot and will be more careful next time.

mary cunnane said...

Kerryn:

I'm not cross and I certainly don't feel patronised. Perhaps "bemused" describes it better.

Nor have I accused you of anything. I was merely pointing out that financial considerations are a part of publishing.
Of course the academy is grounded -- but universities aren't businesses, though I'll grant you they are heading that way, in Australia in particular, at present.

About reading White -- I read THE VIVISECTOR ( I was wrong in Crikey yesterday : it wasn't VOSS) and THE TREE OF MAN 35 years ago in New York as a university student. As I recall, they were required reading in the modern novel course I was taking. And readily available to students in cheap paperbacks. I remember being deeply affected by the novels -- THE VIVISECTOR in particular.

At W.W.Norton &Company in the US, where I was from 1976-1996, I published several Australian writers ,including all of the books of Olga Masters whom I think of as one of this country's most significant literary talents.

About Lodge -- I just wanted to get that straight,since the title of your initial post ( "St Patrick Buys the How-To Book") didn't signal that Lodge's book is, in fact, a) serious and b) a useful book for fiction writers.I've put a number of people on to that book over the years -- some of them published authors -- and they've thanked me for the suggestion.

Finally, I can't help noting,with some sadness, that in your reply to Lucy Tartan you rather derisively describe working in publishing as "processing books", as if it were some kind of second-rate occupation -- as opposed to writing. Both are important, for if we don't have passionate and committed people working in publishing how do we expect the work of writers to see the light of day and flourish?

(Of course,some people manage to do both: two of my former colleagues at Norton --Starling Lawrence and Jill Bialosky, editor in chief and executive editor respectively -- are also published novelists --and Jill is a published poet as well. So Lucy, don't think either/or.)

You are spot on though about "the rate of pay" -- which means that,generally speaking, there is not great remuneration in book publishing, especially at the entry level. In my experience of thirty years in the industry, most people are in publishing for the love of it. I certainly am.

KLG said...

Mary -- All good points. I think on the whole we're singing off the same page here.

I am, for example, thrilled to hear what you say about Olga Masters, about whom I could not agree more. Somewhere in an earlier post here I've said that if I had to pick one great Australian short story of the 20th century then 'The Christmas Parcel' would probably be it.

Some of the omissions and ambiguities you note are to do with this baby genre, the blog, and the speed that seems to be an intrinsic part of it. Not that that's any real excuse; if one is going to have a blog one should try to make it a halfway decent one, with standards and such.

For example, I did indeed mean to make the point more clearly and at more length about the Lodge book not being a how-to book (and if it comes to that, I have nothing at all against how-to books; Kate Grenville's written an excellent one as I'm sure you know). I too would recommend to anyone who wanted to be a writer that the Lodge is worth reading. Really I was just snorting at the thought of how White would have reacted, and I bet you think that's funny too.

As for 'processing' -- yes, that was an unfortunate choice of words and it's also an excellent point about it not being either/or -- in fact it has been either/or for very few people, I think. I've been in the processing business myself one way and another -- editing, reviewing, of course teaching -- for more years than I want to think about, and I'm proud of it, so I do regret having put it like that. It was mainly to do with exasperation, having seen enough of Lucy in the blogosphere by now to know that publishers should be falling over themselves to employ her.

And I'm glad you like (some of) White -- I was derailed on this point by the Grumpy Old Bookman link you emailed to me; I was wrongly assuming that you agreed with him.

To reiterate: I thought it was a cheap trick, like most entrapment, and I think Jennifer Sexton would be very hard put to articulate exactly what point she thought she was making.

mary cunnane said...

Kerryn:

We are largely in agreement and indeed singing off the same page.

And about your blog -- which I have only just discovered -- I think it's far more than merely " half way decent."

Mary

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