First of all, what I and others declined was not “the novel”. It was one
chapter. As I said to Sexton, that’s
like showing a square metre of the Sistine Chapel to someone who’d never seen
the whole thing (I’ve read Voss and The Tree of Man, but not The Eye of the Storm) and expecting them to recognise it as great
art.

Second, what The Australian loftily dubs “an experiment” is rather a
stunt – and not an original one either. In January this year the Times of London
retyped the opening chapters of a VS Naipaul novel – Naipaul being another
Nobel Laureate of course – and submitted them to publishers and agents in the
UK, with the same result. This copycat exercise says as much about the quality
of allegedly serious literary journalism as it does
literature.

What
“Wraith Picket” submitted was Chapter Three of The Eye of the Storm – almost
incomprehensible without the context of Chapters One and Two.

“Wraith”, incidentally in his letter of 1 May , said “Your comments and
feedback on my efforts would be greatly appreciated”. Which I duly
supplied in a letter of 8 May: “The sample chapter, while replete with
energy and feeling, does not give evidence that the book is yet of
publishable quality.” And I went on to suggest he read the noted
British novelist David Lodge’s very fine short book, The Art of Fiction
– which Ms. Sexton rather coarsely describes as a “how to” book. (It
was evident when we spoke that she’d never heard of Lodge.)

The pertinent questions that Ms Sexton could have canvassed in her
story, but did not, include:

  • How many copies of The Eye of the Storm and White’s other novels does
    Random House Australia sell every year? It is in print as a Vintage paperback
    here, but I note that his novels carry the ISBN number of the Random House UK
    editions, meaning that that they are imported, rather than actually published
    domestically.
  • In what universities and upper level high school courses is the novel
    taught?
  • How many programs in Australian literature are
    there in the nation’s universities?
  • Are all of the novels which
    have won the Miles Franklin Award still in print and available to Australian
    readers?

These are serious questions, because many of the most important works by
Australian writers are out of print, a state of affairs that results
from several factors – including commercial pressures in the publishing
industry and changing values and emphases in tertiary and secondary literary
curricula. If these works are not in print,
not being read widely in book form (rather than being photocopied for “course
packs” or accessed online) the nation is missing a very large part of
its cultural infrastructure, and perforce its sense of identity and its
heritage.

Aviva Tuffield, Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Scribe Publishing who also rejected the chapter, writes:

It was a complete set-up. I do remember the chapter being sent with this
very amateur covering letter, following none of the conventions that we request
for submissions; that may sound pedantic but we really do get so many poorly
written manuscripts that the least people can do is call ahead before submitting
(as we request) and then submit a synopsis and three chapters. So “Wraith” had
me offside already. And without a synopsis, it was impossible to consider the
chapter in any context and so after a couple of pages, I was not convinced and
stopped reading.

Is this an indictment of Australian publishing? Not
really – I don’t believe there are lots of unpublished Patrick Whites out there.
The general quality of unsolicited manuscripts is poor and most talented writers
find agents or have gained recognition through publication of some of their
shorter pieces in literary magazines or newspapers, and their talent is likely
to be recognised by book publishers. I believe a “Patrick White” today would
find a publisher – but, it seems, not through submitting one random chapter of a
manuscript in a slapdash way.

Peter Fray

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