“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.
I have an idea for a novel set in the UK a few years from now. Its three leading characters – an Irish Roman Catholic priest, an American businessman and a British army officer- join forces to defeat a Socialist coup d’etat.
The BBC can first option on the film rights!
Well, you forgot (for example) E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” and Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 491”, which also explore the same theme. There are numerous other similar novels; see, for instance, the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s entry for “Virtual reality”. The idea that electronics will replace face to face communications is rather a cliche in fiction. Perhaps they didn’t see the point for another novel on the same subject.