“About twenty-five years ago I had an idea for a novel. I had already published three novels, but this one was different. I produced an outline plot and about fifty pages of text. I hawked the project around a dozen or fifteen publishing houses, but I couldn’t raise any interest. I quickly learned why my work was being rejected.
To begin with, I’m not already famous for something else. I’m not on the telly. I’m not a lefty and neither am I homosexual. I don’t meet the right – I mean, of course, the right-on – people for coffee at Tate Modern. I try to write good English with joined-up sentences. I’m not a twenty-two year old leggy blonde whose dad plays golf with one of the directors at Macmillan. I devise plots which have a rational sequence. Reasons given for the novel’s rejection were various and sometimes contradictory: for instance that it was “too ordered and pre-planned” and “rather disconcertingly disordered and disconnected.” I got three “not quite right for our list” and an “it’s not clear who are intended as your target audience.”
(Useless to point out that I wasn’t looking for an audience – as I didn’t intend to read extracts aloud – but a readership).
I had to confess that I knew nothing of “niche marketing.” In my ignorance I still imagined there to be something called “the reading public.” Wrong again. But a recurring theme – the publishers called it a motif – was that my storyline was “too far-fetched.”
Well, I suppose I’d better tell you what my embryo fourth novel was about. It was a dystopian satire in the territory inhabited by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Like Stapledon’s book, it was even a bit philosophical. I am a philosopher by trade, but I hope my allegory wasn’t so artificial that you could see the join – as in Ernie Wise’s wig. The principal characters were two teenagers called Tom and Lucy and they lived in a world in which electronic communications had become so advanced, domineering and ubiquitous that natural, face-to-face interaction among human beings had almost disappeared. Actual flesh and blood was ceasing to count for anything and so I coined that slogan “To be is to be seen when reality is a screen.”
(That was the philosophical bit: echoes of Descartes, Hamlet and Jean-Paul Sartre – geddit?)
It was also the bit which the educated types in the publishing world told me was “too far-fetched.”
That was back in 1995.This morning, 29th January 2019, the newspapers are leading with a report from Ofcom, the communications regulator, which concludes: “Children are finding it too much of an effort to relate to real life and are spending all their time on their electronic gadgets.”
I suppose if I were to resurrect my satire and hawk it around afresh, the same publishers who dismissed it as “too far-fetched” would now claim It’s “old hat.”
I’m not hurt or asking for your sympathy or anything like that. I know how the world is and I accept that you win some and you lose some.
I used to wonder, throughout all those years, whatever happened to Tom and Lucy? Now, thanks to Ofcom’s report, I know.