A few years ago, my friend, Anca Vlasopolos, wrote a haunting short story about an immigrant family trying – unsuccessfully – to sell fish by the roadside in Detroit. It ended with one of them saying ‘Don’t they know a good thing when they see it?’ I have been have been brooding over that story and that question, prompted by a headline in THE INDEPENDENT newspaper a couple of weeks ago: ‘Writer who was rejected 100 times is finally rewarded.’ It goes on to say that Jason Wallace has been named winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award for his novel for young adults, OUT OF THE SHADOWS, set in 1980s Zimbabwe. He had been turned down by 100 agents and publishers before finding a home with the Andersen Press.
This isn’t the first time that a book not deemed good enough to be published by the people who are supposed to know has gone on to win an award, but it never ceases to surprise me. And it doesn’t happen just to new writers, either. Some years ago Jill Paton Walsh, already a successful writer, failed to find a publisher for her book, KNOWLEDGE OF ANGELS. She published it herself and it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair. How does it happen that editors and agents can fail to know a good thing when they see it? Yes, literary taste is to some extent subjective, but not THAT subjective. Most readers can recognize a piece of really bad writing when they see it. Most readers will agree that ANNA KARENINA is a great novel, even if it is not one that they personally enjoy.
I guess that answer lies in the conservatism of the publishing industry, particularly in periods of recession. They don’t want to take a chance, they want something just like the last big thing, or at least something that is guaranteed solid sales. I wonder how many good writers fall through the cracks? It’s not enough to have talent.
But then perhaps it never has been. The other day in the course of doing research for my next novel I asked a biologist what makes a good scientist. ‘Genius may well be 10% inspiration and 90% genius,’ he said, ‘but it’s also 100% persistence.’ The same is true of the writing life.
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