A Guest Blog from Dexter Petley. Dexter is the acclaimed author of a number of novels: a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). White Lies was shortlisted for the Dazed & Confused Most Promising Writer award.
The question left hanging like a ready noose in my previous post (see Jan 2012) was: did I stop it? Well, no, I didn’t. I was young, it was my first novel, how was I to know there were rules?
There was a grain of empathy in Magic Slippers; he saw how far the crest had fallen; feared his souflay would end up where better boys than me had been. He calmed me with one of his soporific Earl Greys, picked up the phone and gave me one of his “I’ll see what I can do/to get rid of you” sighs, like a vacuum cleaner choking on its own bag.
“Hello, Giles? Magic Slippers here. Listen, I’ve got a young man with me who writes beautifully. He’s written a sub-culture novel…Yes…alright. Goodbye.”
Oh boy, was I learning. So I’d written a sub-culture novel and Serpent’s Tail wanted to see it. Of course I never even received a rejection slip; Giles didn’t exist and Invisible Writing was never seen again. It was just a cleaner way of being sent down the rubbish chute. That evening, by the time I’d joined my friends in some Hackney pub, I was telling everybody I’d written a cult novel, as sub-culture didn’t quite have that matching black polar-neck.
Publishing, you see, is cruel. Literary novelists of my generation were too fragile to survive in today’s climate. They suck us in, and spit us out. And quite right too. Just look at the out of print titles of any literary publisher from 1970-1990. Every graduate had an Invisible Novel in the drawer. The ones who slipped past Magic Slippers’s flack, the one-book-wonders who never published again. The ones who weren’t convinced you had to articulate intention into some kind of professional ethic, writing in an age when fiction was subsidised by bible sales and had no kite marks, just a beery nod through from some old pin-stripe who was up at Varsity with your uncle.
How times have changed; but you wouldn’t think so from the slush piles. Literary fiction is still the chosen field of those with nothing to write about. Even published novelists who find themselves outmoded by the more urgent commercial thrust of the moment, think all they have to do to get back in there is write a literary detective novel. Oh dreary me. Were Magic Slippers still waggling, he’d give you forty whacks for such a crooked thought.
I plead guilty of that subterfuge myself. After struggling a few years with a “literary” novel actually funded by the Arts Council, I thought well, I’m being shoved aside by upstarts here, so I’ll beat ‘em at their own game and turn it into a literary noir. That didn’t impress my agent and we parted company with disappointing ease. This is the alcoholic’s equivalent of going through the bathroom cabinet now. So next I thought okay, a literary detective novel then, one that subverts the genre.
Instantly drunk on this idea, I recycled the empties, submitted a partial to sympathetic agents and waggled my own slippers in glee while I waited for the accolades. But oh boy, did the missiles rain down on my dustbin lid.
And this is the point. You have to know what it is you’re writing from the start, or they’ll catch you out. 2012’s Magic Slippers has eyes by Gillette:
Agents (at least agents as long in the tooth as me) aren’t really ever going to be much interested in a single book; less so, then, if that book is going to be hard to sell–and any book that runs counter to the expectations of its (forgive me) genre without delivering something pretty stunning INSTEAD (instead, of say, the solution to the mystery). We’re looking for careers, people who’re going to write a lot of books we’re going to be able to sell. We’re business people too, have to be, and the time and energy we invest has to be directly proportional to our (OK, optimistic) expectation of the return. If I don’t think I can sell somebody to 45 other publishers before I wind up at some royalty only micro-publisher, I’m not taking somebody on, plain and simple. And that’s no more or less the case in the States as it is in the UK.
Or Exocet software:
Do you really read crime fiction? Do you care about it? I ask because this seems pretty ‘meta,’ if that still means what I once thought it means. And on the face of it, I’d say the same thing that the other agent said: “the literary publishers won’t go for it, neither will the crime publishers.” That’s how it looks on the face of it. Execution is everything, of course; one can be surprised in almost any circumstance. But if the point is to subvert the expectations of the genre, what happens INSTEAD has to be pretty amazing and that’s (mainly) the surprise? That’s tough sledging…
Or just simply the bloody obvious:
The “beautifully written” crime novels work because they never fail to be crime novels, first and foremost; as good as certain authors might be at subverting expectations, they never actually dispense with the formulae themselves. When they try to, those efforts are failures on a number of levels. Also, significantly, if they weren’t published as crime novelists, they would never be able to pay the bills.
Do you care about paying your bills? Because as an agent, your answer, any author’s answer, to that question is almost as important as how good the book itself is. You give me a tough book to sell, one that straddles genres, in this hard marketplace, the only way I’m even going to consider taking you on is A) if the book is absolutely brilliant and B) you’re going to be writing more of them more often than every three or four years.
Tough or what? Literary authors are in a pickle if they don’t care enough about crime. Magic Slippers’s advice is still STOP IT. Why? Because:
Crime is the opposite of “serious,” in industry standards. You aren’t just writing a novel in which (presumably) shit happens–death and urgency and so on (all good things)–but you’re populating it, specifically, with a DETECTIVE.
Ah. As soon as you do that, the laws are against you… At this point I’m interrupted by a knock at the door. The bill.
-Are you the author?
-Author, I’m arresting you for the murder of Magic Slippers..