The Sunday Times January 01, 2006
Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale

THEY can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.

One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.

The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.

Only Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, expressed an interest, and that was for Middleton’s novel.

She was unimpressed by Naipaul’s book. She wrote: “We . . . thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.”

The rejections for Middleton’s book came from major publishing houses such as Bloomsbury and Time Warner as well as well-known agents such as Christopher Little, who discovered J K Rowling.

The major literary agencies PFD, Blake Friedmann and Lucas Alexander Whitley all turned down V S Naipaul’s book, which has received only a handful of replies.

Critics say the publishing industry has become obsessed with celebrity authors and “bright marketable young things” at the expense of serious writers.

Most large publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts from first-time authors, leaving the literary agencies to discover new talent.

Many of the agencies find it hard to cope with the volume of submissions. One said last week that she receives up to 50 manuscripts a day, but takes on a maximum of only six new writers a year.

Last week, leading literary figures expressed surprise that Naipaul, in particular, had not been talent spotted. Doris Lessing, the author who was once rejected by her own publishers when she submitted a novel under a pseudonym, said: “I’m astounded as Naipaul is an absolutely wonderful writer.”

Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, who teaches creative writing, said: “It is surprising that the people who read it (Naipaul’s book) didn’t recognise it. He is certainly up there as one of our greatest living writers.”

While arguing that the best books would still always find a publisher, he added: “We need to keep the publishers on their toes as good books are as rare as hens’ teeth.”

Middleton, 86, whose books have a devoted following, wasn’t surprised. “People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays,” he said. Naipaul, 73, said the “world had moved on” since he wrote the novel. He added: “To see that something is well written and appetisingly written takes a lot of talent and there is not a great deal of that around.”

“With all the other forms of entertainment today there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.

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