Saturday, 9 August 2008

Saying no

‘He had the look on his face – inspiration.
There was no arguing with it –
the look he had when he signed the contract
for the cookbook that sold a million.

‘It was also the look that had turned down
Cards of Identity and Go Tell It on the Mountain.’

I talked briefly the other week with one of the publisher’s editors who turned down, a year ago, Jennie’s book. We didn’t mention it. I remembered the lines above, from a Louis Simpson poem. But really there was no cause for any social trickiness, because neither of us had done anything to feel awkward about. Editors edit, and choose, by their own lights; and they should go on doing so, rather than feeling there’s an accountant, or a policeman of literary taste, watching their every move. Any decent book being turned down means neither that the book is bad nor that the editor is an idiot. All it shows is that, in the dating game the placing of books resembles, the chemistry wasn’t right.

I turn down books myself, these days. Some of them good ones. But not my type.

Louis Simpson has several poems about publishing. ‘Sitting at a desk with my feet up / on the bottom drawer, reading manuscripts . . .’ No wonder that, according to the most recent Bookseller survey of people working in publishing, when asked how they got into their jobs nearly 40% of respondents said they had just drifted there. Despite the word with which Simpson closes the first section of his poem: ‘underpaid’.

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