Apparently “slush pile” is the technical term for unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher, as in “have a wade through the slush pile and see if there’s anything decent.” It must be a daunting experience for first-time or unpublished authors to submit their creations to publishers in the knowledge that the default reaction of the latter will probably be to assume that what they have been sent is rubbish. I suppose it is understandable really, given that of the thousands of manuscripts sent to a publisher there are probably only a handful that are worth reading let alone publishing. This undoubtedly makes the publisher’s role a difficult one: how to be selectively dismissive without missing the real gems out there? It is not a new problem, nor is it confined to literature. When Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed it was variously called a “vulgar din” and “the end of music”; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring started a riot on its opening night in 1913. Clearly, human beings are not enormous enthusiasts of novelty, and it can take decades for an artist’s work to be fully appreciated.
Sticking to literature though I thought it might be amusing to collect a few quotes of publishers’ initial reactions to classic novels, partly as a way of encouraging budding authors not to take criticism too seriously and partly because they’re sometimes quite a hilarious reflection of human ignorance and misunderstanding. I owe most of them to the recent book This Is Not The End of The Book, in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière discuss, among other things, the history of human stupidity. If anyone has any others (or personal experiences), we want to know about them – firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “It may be a lack of intelligence on my part, but I fail to understand why it should take thirty pages to describe how someone tosses and turns in their bed, unable to sleep.”
On Hemingway’s Fiesta: “Sir, you have written a travel book.”
On Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “Sir, you have buried your novel beneath a hotchpotch of detail that is very well done, but utterly superfluous.”
On Melville’s Moby Dick: “There is little chance that a book such as this would interest a young readership.”
On Emily Dickinson: “Your rhymes don’t work.”
On Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It’s no good trying to sell the Americans a novel about animals.”
One of the free bookmarks given to readers in the London Library bears the quotation “the true university of these days is a collection of books”. This may ring true to some, trite to others, but whatever your view it is only one aspect of the value of books. In it lies the latent threat to authority of the free exchange of information, the power to change oneself, to educate oneself, the means of communication and the aggregation of knowledge. Books are the portals through which information passes across time and space from person to person. But in books one can also be anywhere, anyone, anything without leaving your house, your chair, your bath. Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth century American poet, wrote in a letter to a friend “I love to feel the wind on my face, to breast the waves”, but she never saw the sea, and beyond the age of 30 she never left the confines of her father’s land in landlocked Massachusetts. She explored the world through reading and through writing and out of those travels come some of my favourite phrases in the modern English language. “Forever” she says, “is deciduous”. I like to read: the leaves may come and go but the tree is still the same.
Reading is conversational. If you read abstractedly you will miss a great deal. But ask questions of a book and you will begin to discover new things, new people, new places. I remember books precisely as I remember conversations. Many fade from memory within minutes or days, but the good ones hang with you, the ones you take time over, interest in – those are the people, the times, the days that are memorable and it seems that they are too few and too far between, supplanted as they often are by the internet, the television, the radio; inanity.
Personally, I did not begin reading properly until I had left university. It was then that I began my ‘higher education’, albeit from a solid base fostered by others but not myself. Before that I had had a needy relationship with books. I needed qualifications, information, entertainment – even tea coasters or decoration for my shelves. I wasn’t interested in having a relationship with books. It hadn’t occurred to me that people had spent thousands of years recording, distilling, refracting their experience of the world for my benefit. Other people wanted me to read things, so I read most of them, looked some up on the internet and wrote bored essays about them. I scoffed when a teacher told me that he wanted our class to read something to make us better people. I squandered the books that I read and the time I had to read them. There are many reasons not to read books. Many ways not to read them. Places not to read them. Books not to read. But for all of this, books are the friendliest and most communicative of the objects with which we interact because they are made only out of voices.