What Use Is A Gatekeeper Without A Gate?by Alan Devey on 04/10/19
I was reading a letter from an academic in the Atlantic recently in which she mentioned the fascinating results of a lifetime spent analysing success. Her research found that the most important attribute indicating achievement in a chosen sphere was a positive self-image. As someone who has struggled with self-esteem his whole life (mainly due to my economic background and upbringing), this very much resounded with me. I noticed long ago how the confidence that exudes from the most renowned often isn’t justified, and is only occasionally linked to ability or intelligence. You only have to look at the current state of our government to realise that.
But there is a third element in that triumvirate of qualities most likely to enable success, especially in an artistic field. This is more important than flawless self-perception or unshakeable self-belief, and it's become very apparent to me through recent years. This attribute is contacts. I wish someone had pointed this out to me long ago, the way that, to be a success in your chosen field, hard work and the attainment of skills along with persistence and a modicum of talent often mean little. You'll only go unheard without the ear of the right person; someone who holds a position of power that can push your work onward; as a writer, artist, musician or whatever.
Obviously it helps to have high levels of belief instilled in you from the start, to possess faith you’re entitled to a place at the table and not suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’ that stymies so many from humble backgrounds. A springboard of guts and fearlessness is obligatory if you want to put your work out there, overcome the embarrassment that comes with exposure and the inevitable criticism that will result. But even if someone with artistic inclinations gets past all this, they still encounter the gatekeepers of taste and content blocking their way. Even today connected people at the top hold immense power over what's released into our culture then publicised across the public realm.
Of course, some will say the internet has democratised everything in recent times. Now you CAN be successful as a one-human band, set up a record label or Instagram-influencing feed, earn a living through self-publishing to bypass the gatekeepers, once and for all; just look at E.L. James. I suppose this is true in a few cases where writers have managed to by-pass the major networks, but for thousands of authors who release books every year, most will be received with a deafening silence. Without the infrastructure of a name publisher or any way of guaranteeing the quality of their work for readers (beyond a few Amazon peer reviews), success is too big of an ask. Do we really expect the casual browser to sort through everything that's available on the Kindle, trying to find hidden gems within an avalanche of unexpurgated prose?
Marketing a book is a full-time job, even if you possess the chutzpah to approach online bookworms who won’t know you from Adam. An author can offer deals of course, thereby reducing the pittance they will make from sales still further, or knock themselves out day after day in search of an elusive readership, even as the circles they move in are more likely to contain other writers than open-minded readers, all vying for a sliver of attention. Self-publishing is one great, unregulated free-for-all; an ever-expanding ocean of material, much of which stays close to just one person’s heart. I love the possibilities, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t the answer for the majority of authors, not in my experience. Writing fiction isn’t like playing in a band, some group of musicians who build a fanbase by touring and can negate the absence of record sales or major label interest. For the moment, writers still need to approach the industry by winning over gatekeepers that are busy with other things, powerful people who tend to ascend from a very narrow demographic. While the majority of literary agents will take unsolicited prose, 99.9% of submissions are either ignored or rejected out of hand and this isn’t always about quality. Agents are generally less receptive to unsolicited work too; samples from writers they’ve never heard of and which, to be fair, will often turn out to be substandard. In order to stand out from the digital mountain of that insultingly-named ‘slush pile’, an author needs to grab their attention instantly and, from all I’ve seen, this can either be accomplished by writing that’s reassuringly similar to the recently successful (“It’s a twisty domestic crime thriller with an unreliable female narrator!”) or invoking what the film industry calls a ‘high concept’. The latter would involve mashing-up two elements an agent is familiar with from the wider cultural firmament, perhaps with a slight twist - ‘One Day meets Gravity’ for example, or ‘like Room, but with a female psychopath’.
When explaining this situation I realise I may come across as a failed non-entity with a chip on his shoulder. After all, I’ve spent more than twenty years endeavouring to get a literary agent and, through that time, I’ve had close to a thousand rejections (if you include submissions that were ignored altogether). I’ll happily admit that, for the first decade or so, my work was promising at best, but it would have been hugely encouraging had an agent recognised how committed I was to my path and seen the potential there. Even today I wouldn’t claim I was somehow entitled to representation, that’s the worst kind of presumptive narcissism. But I can’t go on foisting my work on agencies who decline by return of email without looking beneath the blurb, that’s just incrementally soul-destroying. For a long time I thought it was just me, that's until I heard stories from more talented friends and acquaintances.
Here’s one: While I was doing a post-graduate course my fellow student Mona Dash brought in some compelling heart-on-sleeve life writing for group appraisal. It detailed her familial experience in a way that was profoundly moving and, I felt, could offer succour to parents who found themselves in a similar predicament. Several of our group encouraged Mona to expand her short piece into a book-length memoir and I was fortunate enough to have editorial input into her manuscript, when it was readied for submission. Fate then appeared to intervene as, at a book launch, Mona found herself talking with a Booker-nominated author who showed genuine interest in her story. This author was emotionally engaged by Mona’s pitch and offered to pass her details on to his agent.This is the moment all writers dream of, am I right? A foot in the door that is more usually slammed in our face. It's the implied promise in all our networking; the chance to have an elevated gatekeeper objectively assess work we truly believe in.
Well, no, as it turned out, that wasn’t the way this would go.
Without reading a single word of Mona’s manuscript this renowned literary agent (who shall remain nameless but regularly styles herself as “nice” in publicity material) sent her Booker-nominated client away with a flea in his ear. She told him: “while the proposal does sound good, I wonder if the author can possibly write a story like this”.
There’s quite a bit to unpack here, so bear with me. The obvious response would be: “You could at least read a chapter or two for yourself, just to be sure”, but this agent must be too important to dilly-dally with the emissions of the hoi polloi. Myself and Mona mused on a number of theories why the agent would assume an independently published novelist-slash-poet, one whose work has been read widely across India, wasn’t the right person to commit her own story to paper. Did she not graduate from the right university? Was Mona’s ethnicity a problem in the marketplace? To me, the whole shameful episode encapsulated a mindset among certain agents toward unsolicited authors. The belief goes like this: if the person submitting material was good enough, she would have made it already and I'd know of her, because my finger is on the pulse of the literary industry. Ergo, I can happily ignore her manuscript, because no one else has expressed an interest (probably for similar reasons). So round and round in circles we go, with the gatekeepers unwilling to take a chance on new writers who haven’t yet found a place in the public eye. Many gifted authors will get no further because of this attitude; originality and the ability to craft a compelling tale count for little when those who act as custodians of the literary world are not willing to read a single word you’ve written.
Thankfully this story has a happy ending. Mona persisted and her wonderful memoir ‘A Roll of the Dice’ is available imminently from the independent Linen Press, with heartfelt endorsements from notable literary and cultural figures across the jacket and an introduction by a pioneer in gene therapy. Mona’s work has made it out there on merit, as it deserves to, but no thanks to that literary establishment or the breath-taking condescension of one agent in particular. This kind of injustice resonates with me in a number of ways, so I really hope her memoir proves to be an unmitigated success.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I harvest one last round of rejections for that book I’ve just completed, one I fully expect to be the final novel I write on spec. There’s clearly a disconnect within the creative world, and it’s something that, I believe, can be summed up by William Goldman’s famous quote on the film industry: “No one knows anything”. I would include myself in this, absolutely, and I’m not saying marvellous individuals aren’t at work in the book world with the best of intentions. But even an outsider will see how problems come when agents are responsible for finding all the books that are sold on to publishers. Then those same agents have to know exactly what publishers will want, and both sets of professionals need to know what is going to sell. They can’t, of course, not every time. That’s why the success of certain books which aren’t like anything that has come before – 50 Shades, for example - regularly take them by surprise. Often a rejection email will tell a writer “I can’t place this with a publisher”, a strange admission of defeat when the agent hasn’t even tried. More pertinently, such a response tacitly admits that taking on a book has little to do with its quality. Rather the approach is to assess how sellable a product will prove in the global marketplace. That’s why bookshops continue to groan under the weight of Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown and Lee Child. It’s not because these writers are churning out anything with artistic merit, even their fans wouldn’t argue that.
This is all a roundabout way of telling budding writers who might read this what they’re up against, when trying to raise interest for a novel or work of non-fiction. The current business model is far from meritocratic and means that wonderful books are regularly dismissed out of a hand. A notable example would be Eimear McBride’s debut ‘A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing’. It took McBride nine years to get thiswork published, her book finally ending up on the tiny indie Galley Beggar Press before going on to win multiple literary awards. Today critically-acclaimed authors across Britain will continue to submit to small presses directly, proving themselves worthy of an agents’ attention only after they’ve done what a good agent is meant to do, which is place their book with a publisher in the first place. The odds are stacked against you but there are initiatives trying to correct the closed shop attitude and right an institutional bias against those from difficult backgrounds who are trying to accomplish something of artistic worth. Perhaps in future we’ll get past this country’s embarrassing focus on fiction from the straight, while, upper middle class milieu; careerists who write of relationship difficulties suffered by men and women of a certain age while occupying big houses, all across Hampstead. I hope we can progress instead to a situation where compelling writers from outside the established order will no longer be ignored by their contemporaries, and those fictional outpourings they labour over will not be consigned to the dustbin of history, regardless of how much they have to offer.
In the meantime, you’ll just have to do it for yourselves I’m afraid, whether that’s through self-publishing or finding a receptive independent press. Commit to this writing life, settle in for the long haul, aim for one hundred submissions a year and try not to let the frustration of continual rejection get you down. I was absolutely convinced a mystery novel I wrote a couple of years back had enough about it to get published and now the book has finally been picked up, after approximately 150 rejections. I had a few nice comments along the way, with one agency even calling the full manuscript in, only to baulk when they discovered there wasn’t enough violence or implausible twists for them. But ‘Beyond The Bailey’ has recently been taken for publication by an independent publisher, based out of the United States. They believed in the novel, just as I did, in fact they love it. So this year, more than two decades after I finished the final draft of a book, I’ll have a novel published by someone who isn’t me for the first time. I’ve done it the hard way, but that’s only because there was no other route open to me. Hopefully future generations of working class, BAME, LGBTQ+ and other minority writers with few options open to them right now will find nothing but open doors instead. They won’t spend their whole lives wondering if they should even try. Perhaps, by then, things will have changed.