Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hidden treasure

Mslexia dropped through my letterbox this morning. Always good for the latest industry trends and issues of interest to writers, this morning it held a special treat for me: the news that my friend Rosie Garland (who once thrilled audiences as Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen poet) has won the Mslexia competition for an undiscovered novel, with her novel The Beast in all her Loveliness. Not only that - another of her novels is on the 9-strong shortlist! The Beast... garners huge praise from judges Jenni Murray, who compares her to Angela Carter, and Sarah Waters, women who know their stuff when it comes to good writing, and fellow judge agent Clare Alexander says it has 'so much energy and exuberance, it glued me to the page.'

There's no way, at this rate, that Rosie is not now proved to be the fine and exciting writer I have always known her to be, yet in the 'How I Did It' section she describes the struggles she has encountered in a commercialised publishing industry. Such struggles are all too common now for literary writers who are however hardly free to air them before achieving this kind of success, and so the difficulties lie hidden. Mslexia, however, hearing 'rumours from agents that the market for fiction was in freefall, publishing deals were harder to come by, advances were decimated, and established authors were being tossed on the scrap heap' and noting that 'it's a sad fact that many agencies employ junior staff to sift submissions' and that in such a situation success depends on contacts, launched their competition to test how much good debut literary fiction has been left lying by the wayside. Their results appear to be spectacular: they say they were 'seriously impressed by the standard of the writing on show'. To find out why so much good writing was lying hidden they contacted the hundred (!) longlisted authors. It wasn't that the writers weren't sending their stuff out; far from it, but only 15% had managed to get an agent. Amongst the rest Mslexia encountered a tale of 'near misses', agents recognising the merit of manuscripts, even working for long periods with the authors on manuscripts, but ultimately feeling unable to sell them. Rosie herself writes of an agent who sent her winning book out only once, leaving it languishing after a single rejection before finally confessing to her that 'the market was so dire at the moment, he had been told by the agency to concentrate on non-fiction.'

God help us, is all I can say, and I'm not just talking about us writers but our so-called civilisation.
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