Now that I've met the most perspicacious man in London - my new agent, Guy Rose - one might have thought that we'd be in the home straight by now, and that the most perspicacious publisher in London would have emerged from many contenders. Instead, alas, it's more of the same.
Guy sent my book, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, to nine publishers. Within the first fortnight we'd had two rejections. When he took me on, I'd warned him he might be facing forty rejections from publishers, as I had from agents. I'm pretty sure he didn't believe me. As an agent you learn to back your own hunches, so why would he think he was wrong this time?
We met at his club, the BAFTA in Piccadilly. Unfortunately I misunderstood what he'd told me, so was wandering up and down Sackville Street looking for it. This is a street I used to be pretty familiar with, as my brother worked out of offices there. We launched many a wonderful liquid lunch from there, not least one after my Uncle John's funeral, which my father and I had attended together.
Like all our family funerals, this one had been a mixture of stress, sadness and some black humour, though chiefly the first two. It was the first time Dad had seen David's place of work and he was deeply impressed by it, by the fact that my brother had a fine office with a half-moon window, that he had a secretary, that he was clearly a competent and much respected businessman. I don't remember what the lunch consisted of, though seem to recall a deliciously cold rosé that my father was also deeply impressed by - he had the gift of enjoying the small things in life with an intensity that more sophisticated people miss out on. David in the 1980s
But this morning, looking for Guy, there was no friendly secretary to direct me. The street appeared to be deserted, apart from a few Philppino and Australian tourists who had no idea where they were, never mind where BAFTA was. It turned out a huge lorry was blocking the entrance to the club, otherwise I might have arrived on time.
The most perspicacious man in London was as urbane and charming as I expected from chatting to him on the phone, but he had a sheaf of emails from publishers, karmic revenge for the chaos of my latecoming. The first was from a lady. Now this was a class of people I had been warned against. Zoe Wicomb, the great South African novelist who took me through the doctorate, advised me to send the book only to chaps, because the women in publishing were all wimps. Moreover, they were mostly called Camilla, which meant they had expectations of making a good marriage, not a good career.
The lady in question was not called Camilla but she did confess to feeling 'squeamish.' Not the writing, she said. It's the subject matter.
Given that the literary canon runs from the Marquis de Sade through Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg to modern writers like Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote his most famous novel, The Fight Club, to disturb a publisher who'd rejected a previous work for being too disturbing, you might think modern publishers would be used to challenging material.
Not so. Another publisher in Guy's sheaf of emails said he thought it was an interesting idea but he didn't feel happy dealing with a fictional recreation of Myra Hindley. 'I think there's too much baggage and mythology surrounding her,' he wrote, 'and I fear that it would look as if we were making money out of a dreadfully tragic story.'
Right there in one sweep of the pen we've lost every novel about the First and Second World Wars, every novel about child abuse, every novel that contains cruelty. Look, there go All Quiet on the Western Front, Birdsong, The Lovely Bones, even Black Beauty, winging their way to the great charity bookshop in the sky. There go the collected works of Ian Rankin, PD James, Val McDermid (how on earth did her Gothic concoctions get published in such a timorous climate?) and whoever it was my sister was reading when I told her about these rejections. 'This book starts with someone in a cave lined with the skulls of dead children,' she said. 'What is their problem with Myra?'
I'm guessing their problem is the economy, stupid, that publishers are afraid to take on anything they think might be controversial at a time when the whole banking system nearly went belly-up. You can write as luridly and with as much egregious gore as you like so long as there's some nice, flawed but moral detective to remind you that things will work out all right in the end. Pardon some of us for noticing that things do not always work out all right, even for those with power and money. Children do end up as cave decoration; atrocities do get performed in the name of love; and Sir Fred Goodwin couldn't even hold on to his knighthood, still less his wife.
They say that in recession people turn to lighter forms of entertainment, like the screwball comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals of the Great Depression, but they also look deeper than normal too. 'People want more entertainment,' according to Richard Reeves, director of the thinktank Demos, 'but they also want more enlightenment.'
I wrote Myra, Beyond Saddleworth for my own enlightenment, in a spirit of enquiry. I'm betting there are plenty of other people who are equally perplexed by the question of what human beings do to each other. If we can reach only one of them, (who happens to be in a position of power in a publishing house) then the book will sell.
In the meantime I'm investing some of my not yet earned cash from it to frame a rejection from a well-known Scottish publisher. The lady there said the book was 'dark, resonant and a pleasure to read. You have managed to position a well-researched work alongside eerily realistic characterisation to exceptional effect.' She went on to say that there was undoubtedly a market for this book but that it was 'not quite what we are looking for at the current time.'
So that's it. All we have to do now is find a publisher who is currently engaged in looking for a dark, resonant book that's a pleasure to read. I'd go for a book with a blurb like that any day. There must be someone out there in the world of publishing who agrees...