: views from the Hill

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why bother with Patrick White? -- the failure of genius to be recognized

Here we go again.

Jennifer Sexton gives us yet another attempt to show that the work of a genius (the nation's [Australia's] most lauded novelist, our only Nobel prize-winning writer, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award and three times the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medallist) wouldn't be picked out of the slush if his award-winning work was re-submitted anonymously today, thirty-three years after he wrote it.

The work? Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm.

What's wrong with this experiment?

Why wasn't White's genius recognized?

Here's a clue.

Nicholas Hudson, of Hudson Publishing, found the work perplexing. "What I read left me puzzled. I found it hard to get involved with the characters, so it was not character-driven, nor in the ideas, so it was not idea-driven. It seemed like a plot-driven novel whose plot got lost through an aspiration to be a literary novel. It was very clever, but I was not compelled to read on," he wrote.

First problem?

Inquirer submitted the third chapter of the work to the editors and agents. Sure, the editors and agents might have failed to recognize good writing or maybe they recognized good writing but just couldn't make sense of the chapter as a stand-alone.

Wouldn't the first two chapters help make sense of the third? Is it wise to just leap directly into the third if your Nobel-winning author had himself thought the first two chapters were needed?

"I found it hard to get involved with the characters," said Nicholas Hudson. Maybe the failure to get involved with the characters was because the first two chapters were there for a reason.

Second problem was best expressed by Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management.

In response to the first unsolicited submission, she said she couldn't take it because she didn't believe in it. "I'm sure you can appreciate that an agent must be totally committed to a work to sell it enthusiastically to a publisher; to do otherwise is not in the best interests of the author."

On being told that she'd turned down Patrick White, how stupid and undiscerning (my words, not the article's) is she?

Tranter says Inquirer's experiment is "piss weak", in particular because White is not generally read and doesn't sell today. "I am looking at one thing and one thing only: can I sell it? And the answer is no, I can't sell The Eye of the Storm. As a literary agent my job is to secure the interest of the public."

The article's a good peek into agents' and editors' reasons for turning down an unsolicited submission sitting in their slush pile.

I was not discouraged by the reasons given for turning down Patrick White AKA Wraith Picket. I was more heartened by the commitment expressed to finding good, fresh, new novelists (just not those who write like Patrick White) than, I'm sure, the perps of this age-worn prank were intending.

Nicholas Hudson, quoted previously as finding the work perplexing, on being told whose work he'd turned away had this to say.

Hudson has since told Inquirer he recalled reading the manuscript and was being kind in his letter. "I was trying to be polite. I thought it was pretentious fart-arsery. I don't like White".

He could've added, "... and if you're planning on sending me a proposal, send me the first chapter of your novel, not the third, you numbskull."

[via kitabkhana]

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