As J K Rowling, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson continue to dominate the best seller lists, publishers have high hopes for frontlist fiction publishing. With increasing pressure from the base line, the number of novels published for children continues to grow and, as in the case of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl*, a lucky few have huge marketing campaigns put behind them. But how well are their authors being served by editors? Is there any interest in, or commitment to, good writing? Jan Mark discusses her experience of being edited.
My first editor was Patrick Hardy**, charming and ruthless. I knew how to write; the fact that I had written a book did not mean that I knew very much about how books are written. Patrick, aware of this, praised it lavishly and told me to shorten the first two chapters. I couldn’t see why, they were not all that long anyway. ‘Do it,’ said Patrick, steely-eyed. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’
Looking back I suspect that there was not all that much that needed to come out and since he was no blue-penciller I had to make up my own mind about what to cut, which was the object of the exercise. The lavish praise was good for my self-esteem, but he was not unduly interested in my self-esteem. His first duty was to the book which, as an editor, he was reading on behalf of everyone who would read it subsequently, and he knew perfectly well that if I did not immediately learn to be edited I might dig my heels in over the second book, on the grounds that there had been nothing wrong with the way I wrote the first one.
I remain deeply grateful. The third book was edited by someone even more ruthless: ‘You’ll need to take out about 7,000 words.’ This was one tenth of the total, not a cosmetic nip-and-tuck but heroic surgery. I bit the bullet and rewrote. Afterwards he told me merrily that if I had refused he would have published it anyway, by which time it was too late to refuse again. I was deeply grateful. I have lost count of my editors over the years. Most have been excellent colleagues, whether or not I enjoyed their methods; some have been adequate and a couple, I am convinced, described themselves as editors because they could not spell amoeba, but the practices instilled in me by those early martinets saw me through because I had never been allowed to think that the work I delivered was as good as it got. It was only as good as I could make it on my own.
It is fatally easy to convince yourself that something will be enjoyable to read because you enjoyed writing it. This is where the kindly ruthless editor steps in. ‘OK, you’ve had your fun. Now, take it out. It’s bad. It’s so bad it’s embarrassing.’ (I quote) ‘I know what I’m talking about.’ Every new writer should have one, a crocodile with gently smiling jaws, heart of gold, will of iron and a critical faculty of pure Carborundum.
Noel Coward once described an actor’s performance as a triumph of mind over matter – never mind over doesn’t matter, a desperate attitude in publishing, especially where the first duty is to the balance sheet. We currently labour under the delusion that there is a tremendous interest in children’s books; children’s books are at last being taken seriously; children’s books are the New Rock and Roll. This is not in fact the case; there is an enormous interest in best sellers. The attention paid to the bulk of children’s fiction is as cursory as ever. The top ten children’s best sellers listed in The Bookseller usually features no more than three or four names (contrast the adult listings). These are the ones that garner the interest. They must be on to something.
So, how to gain a readership for your latest protégée? Children are not so easily lured by glamour shots of pouting bimbos as the sapient adults. Look at that Bookseller list again; protective mimicry. The more closely the work resembles everything else the faster it will leave the shelves – there is safety in numbers. Fantasy is hot; it is also a fast-breeder and increasingly self-referential. Once the province of the highly innovative, logicians, linguists, anthropologists, it is becoming annexed by the wholly derivative for whom the attraction of the genre seems to be that you can just make it up as you go along. Given an inexperienced editor subscribing to the same creed, mutual satisfaction is assured.
A new writer submits a novel, a work of fantasy, say. It fulfils all the requirements; people with peculiar names practising dingbat rituals in far-off worlds ruled by magic, always ruled by magic so that if the plot runs into a brick wall you just wave your wand and remove the wall. By dint of having a good idea buried inside it somewhere it wins a prize. It sells. The editor’s acuity ‘This will do’ – is vindicated, the writer’s inexperience is hailed as mastery of the form (you can’t move at the moment for master storytellers) and the book mutates into a trilogy, a series. Champagne and complacency all round. Nothing is going to get any better, ever. Why should it?
Jan Mark won the Carnegie Medal in 1976 for Thunder and Lightnings and in 1983 for Handles. Her latest book is Heathrow Nights, published by Hodder ‘Signature’, 0 340 77411 8, £4.99 pbk.
*Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is published by Viking.
**Patrick Hardy was Editorial Director of Kestrel Books (the then hardback imprint of Penguin children’s books) in the 1970s before starting his own list, Patrick Hardy Books, just before his untimely death. The annual Patrick Hardy lecture is held in his memory.