Saturday, July 15, 2006
CHAPTER THREE ... in which St Patrick buys the How-To book
Where to begin an analysis, a commentary, or even just an incredulous expostulation in response to this?
For those who haven't already read the original paper article or the cut-down online version, here's the cartoon version: in imitation of a similar British hoax involving V.S. Naipaul, someone from The Australian -- possibly Jennifer Sexton, author of the article, who does not say who set this sting up -- sent Chapter 3 of Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm to twelve Australian publishers and agents, changing the names of the characters, re-titling the novel The Eye of the Cyclone (oh, dear; surely they could have been a bit witty about it, at least) and submitting the MS under a name manifestly not a real one, but an anagram of PATRICK WHITE.
('Wraith Picket', forsooth; why didn't they just call him Keith Crapwit and be done with it?)
Two publishers/agents have not yet replied, after three months, and the other ten all turned it down. Some suggested that St Patrick should read David Lodge's How-To book, and others that he should join a writers' centre. (He would have abominated how-to books and writers' centres.)
The chapter in question was one of the least typical bits, and I'm sorry to say probably one of the least successful bits, of White's writing that I can think of, short of his first two novels Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead, in which he was merely clearing his throat.
The offending chapter is smack in the middle of the action, jumps around chronologically, and, most atypically for White, is pretty much all narrated in free indirect discourse, reflecting the thought processes of the deeply awful character and the kind of language he would use.
I can't work out which is the worst:
(a) the bad faith of the entrapment, the smugness of its aftermath, and the shabby (and incoherent, as Jeff Sparrow points out in this excellent piece) reactionary agenda behind the exercise,
(b) the failure of the agents and publishers' readers who rejected the chapter to recognise either the actual novel or, at the very least, White's unique, highly spottable style, and the incontrovertible evidence it provides that people getting jobs in Australian publishing houses have clearly not seen fit to make it their business to read a little Australian writing, or
(c) the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections.
I could just cry. And I would, if this episode were not, in its own toxic way, so funny. Not one person or organisation comes out of this particularly well, except perhaps Michael Heyward from Text (no surprises there; Heyward has been one of the class acts of Australian publishing for twenty years), who expressed concern that it had happened and the opinion that publishers needed to be kept on their toes -- unlike everyone else quoted, who toughed it out so brazenly they would have made Pats and Eddie proud.
And maybe Patrick White himself, of course. And he, poor old poppet, is past caring. Or so one hopes.
UPDATE: More at Larvatus Prodeo.