With bookshop shelves over stocked with Harry Potter and fifty other shades of populist shite, Soso Wagwan roots through her rejection slips has and this ramble about how the publishers are stacked against her.
Writing a book? Easy. Heading in to work extra early so you can print out 200 double-spaced pages on the sly? No bother. Quadruple-sellotaping them into an envelope from the pound shop that’s already starting to crack at the seams? Standard. Sending a copy to your parents because they’ve been begging you, even though you’re totally mortified about the scenes of drug abuse and riding? Manageable. But finding someone to print it for you? Well. I’m currently clocking in at around 53 rejections and counting, and yes, I am still counting.
I know what you’re thinking: “53 rejections? You’ve got your answer there, love, don’t give up the day job.” But bear with me a minute. My first ever response from an agent was an invitation to meet with her and her boss in their slick London office, some fawning praise and a few lavish references to movie rights. But in the end: no deal.
“Well, fair enough.” I thought. “You’ve gotta pay your dues” So I kept diligently posting off one sellotape-mangled parcel after another until I’d built up a nice collection of battered-looking, rejection letters on my wall. These consisted of a few impersonal form-letters – grand – a good few no-replies – fair enough – but also (and this is the stinger) a steady stream of scrawled handwritten notes with flirty little messages telling me ‘Hey, you can write, but we can’t sell you.’
So what’s the problem? Poor writing? Probably. An ill-conceived storyline? Almost certainly. But maybe, just maybe… Could it be just a little bit too Irish?
Irvine Welsh was recently cited, giving out in The Guardian that a quality of “Upper-class Englishness” is used as the measure of good literature, and that Scottish authors don’t get a look-in at the award ceremonies. I’ll re-use the line from that article here, because the prick wouldn’t give me a quote of my own to use. Typical Scot. (I’m only messing Irvine. Will you take a look at my manuscript?)
“[It] would be difficult for Trainspotting to be published today by a London-based publisher. The market has become much more defined and Trainspotting doesn’t fit into any defined slot.”
Comparing it with an unusually detailed rejection letter I had received, there are some pretty glaring similarities.
“I’ve now finished reading your novel and though it might be described as the bastard child of “Ulysses” and “Trainspotting”, I just don’t think we’d succeed in selling it in the current climate (the same could be said of Messrs Joyce and Welsh).”
Could it be that the ‘real’ prose of Dublin, like that of Edinburgh, is just too out-of-sync with the Jane Eyres and Great Expectations of the GCSE reading list? I wouldn’t go so far as to crowbar my own pile of shite into Welsh’s category, you’ll be relieved to know, but looking back, it does cast a new light on my first meeting with that first London agent. I remember exactly how her lip curled distastefully under her stylishly black-rimmed glasses as she complained about the many references in my book to drinking and recreational drug-use. The particular section she was referring to was based on a true story from a party in Rathmines a few years back. “It’s unrealistic,” she explained to me in her trim British tones, “People don’t do that.” She obviously goes to different sessions than I do.
“So stop sending your books to London publishers,” you say? “It’s not like Ireland doesn’t have a publishing industry of its own.” And indeed you’re right. But in the end, we’re a small island, and if a publisher doesn’t have one eye on the market across the pond well, they can’t expect to be in business for that much longer.
I discussed the possibility of an ‘anti-Irish’ bent to the industry with Brendan Barrington, editor at Penguin Ireland, who admits that “it would be foolish to underestimate the cultural influence of ‘upper-class Englishness’”. But he also makes the valid point that the very existence of Penguin Ireland as an entity, publishing primarily Irish books for the British and Irish markets, suggests the market does have room for Irish talent.
Still, which Irish talent are they publishing? It is well-known that Joyce struggled for years to find a publisher for Ulysses (although admittedly, it is a bit of a tricky read) and Roddy Doyle self-published The Commitments. So who is chosen to represent us abroad? Many of our new novelists (first published within the last 20 years) have either lived or studied in England for large chunks of their lives, a fact which surely has a diluting impact on the ‘Irishness’ of their prose. William Trevor, one of our greats, has been based in England since the age of 26, Keith Ridgeway spent years living in the UK, and Adrian McKinty was educated in Oxford and is still still living abroad today.
But still we have runaway multi-book successes in Marian Keyes and Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly – talented authors providing an undeniably Irish voice in the international marketplace. So what is the difference there? For one thing, genre-writing has always been more commercially successful than its awkward cousin ‘literary fiction’ – a catch-all term for everything with claims to literary merit or that just struggles to slot neatly into one marketing category. In other words: the very books that have the best chance at showing the world what Ireland really sounds, looks and feels like these days (without being distracted by creepy love letters from beyond the grave, or the white witch making it winter all year around, the bitch). For another, there is a certain quaintness to the depiction of the Irish in these books: the very image of the harmless, good-humoured Paddy that Welsh’s ‘upper-class Britishness’ really fetishises (I am leaving Northern Irish writing aside for the moment – that’s a different article altogether).
Think Father Ted Crilly (“That’s the great thing about Catholicism – it’s so vague. No-one knows what it’s really all about.”), Keyes’ Walsh family (“I rang my mother to thank her for giving birth to me and she said, “What choice had I? You were in there, how else were you going to get out?”), and Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”)
All fantastic characters, no doubt about it, but perhaps a little too loveable? Where’s our Trainspotting? I know it’s out there; I’ve seen it. And in fact, where are we? Where are the roll-over sessions and the dole, the raves that get shut down after an hour and a half, the pictures in the Herald after leaving cert night and the carnage on O’Connell street on St. Patrick’s day that is anything but quaint?
So look. Fair dues, it probably is about time I threw my first novel in the green bin; I gave it a fair lash and 53 rejections probably is taking the piss a bit. But when I write the next one I’m going to make sure it’s every bit as truthful, every bit as awkward, and every bit as shaming to my parents as the last. And I hope some of you are ready to do the same. Because in the end, it’s up to us.
And I want to read it.