An Indian summer in the rainy city

September continues to see-saw between 24-karat sunshine and sudden monsoon. Just as I muse on a proverbial Indian summer before autumn arrives, spittle-like flecks hit my rose tinted sunglasses -the bleached-out, high key, sunlit vistas rapidly dial down to darkness and an all-encompassing late afternoon thunderstorm erupts. So it goes in the rainy city.

Much like Manchester weather the literary publishing game is perennially, pretty much, predictable.

Aired this week was “The Man Booker Prize Shortlist” -surely the only (or one of few) ‘shortlist’ that gets widely, internationally, capitalised. This year’s Chair is the serious historian Dr Amanda Foreman well known (here in the UK at least) for a quality TV series that recently aired and transported viewers through time to reveal more of lopsided histories that have been skewed in favour of rich and powerful and thieving and obscene men.

True to form, I sniffed out an interview with Foreman where she was quoted as hoping that readers will agree with the Booker judging panel’s view that the shortlisted books have the power to “transport” –sparking imaginations and (perhaps more importantly) nudging and upgrading assumptions.

So I look forward to delving further into this year’s list in due course… at a glance, one book popped out from the 2016 Booker shortlist. The debut novel from American writer Ottessa Moshfegh (here’s one of her short stories).

Yes.

Debut.

Some talking heads have been shocked into murmurs of disapproval in print, online and social. Dusty eyebrows must have been raised in literary huddles, and beads of sweat must have ruffled the wispy Trump-like comb overs of those with their nose deep into literary rags like The Bookseller. For some people still hold onto the belief that Booker adulation ought to be reserved for seasoned writers.

Debut?

Yes.

Spying a debut writer up for the Booker is no surprise. Earlier this year, 11 of 16 writers shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction were debutants. Long story short, debut authors hold a mysterious cache in the book trade – a virginal, tabula rasa, talent-to-mold (and sell) type of thing, perhaps. This has been the case during my decades on the planet, at the very least.

2016 is no different. So far it has been a vintage year for old school bluff and guff about fiction… “There’s never been a better time to be a first-time author,” says one literary agent, whose blushes we can spare by preserving anonymity. In the blatant puff piece, the agent in question promotes her own agency’s “free event for aspiring novelists… speed-dating style.” Hmm. The rhetoric obscures the fact that this event was not entirely unrelated to generating leads for the same agency’s creative writing classes… costing nearly £2,000 a pop.

That kind of hefty investment calls to mind the question of whether the ‘aspiring writers’ courted by this agency are better described as ‘unwitting customers’. The rhetoric of the aforementioned blog promo ramps up, declaiming that debut writers promise “an adventure” to readers… (don’t other writers?). The agent gushes about how the “new voice, new idea, new perspective” of the debut writer is “the engine which powers our industry”. This is disingenuously honest bluster since, given the example of expensive creative writing classes, new writers with (healthy, sizeable) expendable income clearly do power up the revenues of some industry players.


Post-script.

More than likely September shall not spark an unusual, memorable Indian summer. For now, its mix of sunbeams and lightning strikes strangely sum up the publishing industry at this time of year. In any given year. On the face of it, a mysterious changeling at play in the skies overhead… yet in fact a messy puzzle that is realigning itself in readiness for autumn. Like September, the book game plays out pretty much the same each and every year. Full of promise, riddled with pitfalls, and glittering with prizes that feel that bit farther out of reach to writers like me -especially when you’re drenched, sitting in an English garden waiting for the Sun…

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