In a letter to the editor of The Author, organ of the Society of Authors in the UK, fellow member, Catherine Barron, a former Investors Chronicle journalist, tells how she recently took an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in a bid to widen the scope of her career.
Many agents and publishers, Catherine says, came to give talks to the students and what impressed her most about them was their air of condescension "as if they had something to offer that we would all like, and not as if we had anything to offer they might like". She goes on to point out that, for an industry that pulps an astonishing proportion of its choices each year, its confidence in its own judgment seems thoroughly unjustified.
The journalist emphasises that she was struck by how often the agents and publishers, who were mainly women (not sure whether that's significant) talked about the importance of presentation in the manuscript. This has always been the case and, taken superficially, accords with common courtesy and does sort out the grain from the chaff. However, 'fitness for purpose' used to be the dictum and the recognised yardstick. She states story was all during her days of financial reporting. The subs sorted out the typos.
Why is story not all for these self-appointed arbiters of taste?
When the matter is analysed, isn't what authors want to write as good an index of trends in the public appetite for fiction as anything else? One of the overriding problems is that books can't be produced fast enough to satisfy overhyped market fads, so mightn't it be just as 'safe' to back what is evolving deep in the collective unconscious on the premise that by the time the book comes out, demand might well have caught up with it?!
Is it that the industry is so technologically, and therefore commercially, inefficient that it is forced to try and balance its budget by ruling out the need for old-style editors who had a nose for the job and an appreciation of original talent and by whose reputation alone the author's career could be made? Add to that the call for perfect copy, reducing the number of copy editors... And microscopic publicity funds, leaving the author to hawk his/her own wares...
Haven't agents and publishers stepped outside the box and forgotten the limits of their respective disciplines? Wouldn't they find dealing with authors an altogether more pleasant experience if they remained politely corralled within it?
In no other industry could so much be requisitioned for rewards mounted upon offchance.
The author, Jane Gardam, who was the final short story judge of the 2007 Bridport Prize described her initial despair upon receiving a sheaf of long-list contenders. She likened it to a desert in which she feared all the authors had attended the same creative writing class.
Catherine Barron's letter appears in the Winter 2008 edition of The Author. Unfortunately no link to the contents is yet available.
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