Friday, 10 April 2009

Clive James, celebrity and getting published

I have recently been reading North Face of Soho by Clive James, which I believe is the fourth in his largely auto-biographical series which began with Unreliable Memoirs. It was, as always with Clive James, a hugely entertaining read, but to my mind none of the successors have had the same impact as that first one, perhaps because it seemed at the time (and indeed probably was) such a different and refreshing book to anything else one had read. I can remember reading it on holiday one year and laughing out loud every few minutes. He is the master of the deadpan throwaway line, a technique I have shamelessly tried to copy in my own writing. I think my favourite one went something like this: "As I got out of her car, I arranged to meet her again the next day. It seemed the least I could do considering I had just been sick in the glove compartment of her 2CV."

I have also been reading The Meaning of Recognition (like North Face of Soho, borrowed from the excellent Swiss Cottage library)and here I have a bit more of a problem. TMR is a collection of essays and I took it out to read because the same author's Cultural Amnesia is one of my favourite books of all time. Frankly, TMR disappoints. CA was a collection of essays on key figures (though some not that well known, at least in the UK) of the twentieth century, and was an example of that wonderful eclectic mix of wit, erudition, insight and humanity that James does so well. It ranged across just about every art form, delved into the big issues of the last century, and was by turns enlightening, funny and touching.

TMR is none of these things. Perhaps it is because he restricts himself largely to the more popular media such as Television, though he also gets into subjects as diverse as contemporary politics and Grand Prix racing. Even the two I thought I would enjoy the most, on Huxley and Flaubert, were strangely unsatisfying. There are some flashes of the old brilliance (a novel, he says, "is a register of the mind's adventures, not of the memory's contents") but far too much of it feels like an old professional journalist knocking out his copy.

While CA would be on my list of ten all time favourite books, it had always struck me that there was an inconistency somewhere in it which troubled me, and it was only on reading something James said about celebrity in TMR, and them something about his own experiences in North Face of Soho which brought it home to me. He is rightly and understandably very hard on aspiring writers who contact him asking if he can introduce them to agents or publishers. Good books will always get published, he avers, since publishers have a whole team of people who do nothing but wade through the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts, and sooner or later quality will out.

With due respect to James as a senior member of the London cultural world, this simply isn't true, and frankly I doubt if it ever was. We all know that Harry Potter was turned down by several publishers (Macmillan are rumoured still to be trying to find out who was responsible for this mega-gaffe at their end), and represents the rule, not the exception.

Fact: unless an author is represented by an agent then most pubslihers will not even return their phone calls or emails, let alone read their manuscript. Fact: publishers do not have whole teams of people who wade through their slush piles, unless an occasional summer intern qualifies. Fact: most publishers no longer even accept unsolicited proposals. Fact: publishing editors for the most part do not even have the power any more to decide which authors they would like to publish. Their sales people tell them what they want to sell, and the poor old editor then has to go out and find it. For the most part, of course, "what they want to sell" means some piece of nonsence ostensibly written by a "celebrity" and/or a "TV spin-off".

James is very hard on the cult of "celebrity" which has grown up around the world of television and rightly draws a distinction between people who are "recognised" in the sense that their face may have appeared on the TV screen from time to time, and people who are "recognised" as being possessed of some unusual talent, or being eminent in their chosen field of study. It was only when I read his decsription of persuading a reluctant publisher to accept his idea for Unreliable Memoirs that the penny finally dropped. If he is honest, he will admit (because he says as much in North Face of Soho) that the only reason the book got accepted for publication was because he was at the time a well known TV celebrity. If he had not been, then he would have been able to experience at first hand the frustration of knowing that you have written a piece of quality work, but that nobody is going to give you the time of day to discuss it, far less to read it.

Recognition comes in many guises, but the sad fact today is that one is unlikely to become recognised as a writer, since in order to become a writer in the first place you need already to be recognised.

No comments: