I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Book Contract With The Devil


Something I read a few days ago has really got me thinking - and got my blood boiling - and I can't help but think that we may have been denied a wonderful novel. Come to think of it, we may have been/are being denied many good novels for what I consider to be very silly reasons.

Did anyone else read a piece on the book blog of the Guardian website titled Le Diable is in the detail ? Maxim Jakubowski - former publisher, author, reviewer of crime fiction - wrote about sloppy attention to detail in fiction. He was actually talking about the latest Hannibal novel, complaining that Thomas Harris often gets the French and setting wrong. (The devil in the detail, when we're talking about Hannibal? Lovely.) But he then goes on to reveal something that I find extraordinary:

"Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still an acquiring editor in publishing, I was offered a very promising manuscript, a first thriller by a Canadian author. I liked the book and felt the author had much talent. But a key sequence of the book was a frantic car chase in which the protagonist was chased along the Boulevard Sebastopol in Paris, from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine. Only one small problem: the Boulevard Sebastopol is one way and traffic runs in the opposite direction. It just spoiled the book for me."

Come again? Did this former acquiring editor just say he turned down a book because the traffic wasn't flowing in the right direction? He liked it, but the chase scene spoiled it for him? I really hope this wasn't the only reason he turned down the book - if that is indeed what happened. It would've been very easy to choose another street, wouldn't it? If he really liked this book and thought there was talent, why couldn't he just ask the writer to change the offending detail? Are there really editors out there who are just as hard? And if there are, how many great books are we being denied just because a writer has not verified all of what could be considered as unimportant detail?

I also really hate to point out to Mr Jakubowski that he himself has failed to take his own advice about paying attention to detail. The name of the Paris road he refers to is actually Boulevard de Sébastopol, with a very important "de" between the two words and an accent on the "e". These are only small details in the wider scheme of things, yes, but they become big elephants in the room when they pop up in a piece by a former acquiring editor who's complaining about writers not paying enough attention to detail! It's true that Boulevard de Sébastopol is shortened to Boulevard Sébastopol on at least one sign in Paris - I used to live on this road, by the way - but the official name, if we're worrying about the fact that the devil is in the detail, is with the "de". Just because a council roading department shortens the name so it can fit on a sign does not mean the name of the road has changed. Surely the accent should also be respected, even in English.

Now, I only point out the missing "de" and the accent because it's a good example of how difficult all of this can become. Can you imagine what life would be like for a writer if they had to check every little thing out, no matter how minor or relevant to the story? You can pay good money to go to Paris and stand under the sign that reads "Boulevard Sébastopol" and think you've got it right, when in fact you need to go down to the city council and actually check that it hasn't been shortened for practical reasons by the man who prints the signs. You then need to check with the government printing office to double-check that the city council has got the correct name, with the correct accent, because there are acquiring editors who may just have a bee in their bonnet about devils and detail! To prove that I have a heart, can I just say that if the blog entry Le diable is in the detail had in fact been a book proposal from Mr Jakubowski, I wouldn't have worried about the missing "de" or accent. I would have offered him a contract.

There is, of course, the whole thing about artistic licence. I personally believe there has to be a certain amount of freedom to let the imagination reach its full potential. I have read many books that seem to be ruined by the author's militant and obsessive approach to detail. I don't want to read encyclopaedia-style novels. I don't want to read something where it's obvious the author has been totally restrained by the details of something. I think even some of our more famous novelists tend to do it; Ian McEwan springs to mind with his recent book Saturday.

The book I'm working on at the moment is set in Dublin. Some of the opening scenes take place in D'Olier Street. I have taken the liberty of booking my protagonist into a little hotel, which doesn't actually exist in reality. It suits my story. I certainly don't expect that an acquiring editor like Mr Jakubowski is going to reject the novel because he happens to know that D'Olier Street is void of any cute little hotels. Should I be reconsidering? Have I totally missed the boat here?

Oh, by the way, the devil at the beginning of this post is an original photograph. It's part of the glorious door that graces the entrance to my building here in the centre of Lyon. Don't forget to click on the photographs to make them bigger!

21 comments:

Saaleha said...

Yikes! Then I'd never get any contracts, since I take liberties with things that I write, I create fictional settings from real ones, invent street names, though describing fairly accurately other streets with very different names. It is a work of fiction is it not? And besides, when I read a book from some writer in a far flung corner of the globe, the de is not going to matter a fig!

Shameless said...

I agree, Saaleha. We are writing fiction! When I point out the "de", it's just to illustrate that no one can be so sure of the facts down to the absolute atom, not even Mr Jakubowski. So, as you say, we shouldn't get too hung up about which way the traffic flows. I think we should be able to smother on a good helping of artistic licence. That's not to say, of course, that we should insist that somebody went to the seaside in London!

moontopples said...

Shameless: I thought immediately of "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller when I read this. It's considered one of the great works of American fiction, but he deliberately softens time a little. At one point, it is revealed that Major Major got his rank due to an IBM computer, which had not yet been invented.

I shudder to think that this book (or in fact the one I am presently working on, which takes place in a very fictional Chicago) could be thrust aside so blithely, and for such an arbitrary reason.

If it's fiction, even if the details are the same as in our world, this is due to a choice by the author. If the chase scene had included a loop-the-loop on the same bridge, it's still the author's prerogative, no?

And your pictures are lovely, by the way. You're making me want to go to France.

Anonymous said...

Well, I totally agree with you Shameless. But there is one thought that I just can't get out of my head: if only Mr. Jakubowski had been the editor of the Da Vinci Code...

Jessica Schneider said...

This editor is silly, and I wouldn't want this person with such a banal sense (and utter lack) of imagination working with one of my books. There are times you have to make things up, just for the sake of privacy, and also headache. For example, I have one of my novels set on a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, which of course the actual mountain does not exist. I even made up a whole Incan Myth to go along with the name of it. Why? Because I don't want to write about some real mountain, and then have some jackass mountaineer say, 'hey you can't get up that face, you have to take xyz route, blah, blah, blah...'
This way it's MY mountain, and on MY mountain, my characters will go any which way they please. I do agree with you about the excessive detail thing, like Civil War writers who spend 100 pages talking about the types of gun handles the soldiers used, esp. when the detail in and of itself is uninteresting and irrelevant to the flow of the story.

I'd just shrug this guy off. Whatever.

Shameless said...

Maht,
Someone just suggested to me that in the cover letter to a publisher we should state that any detail can be changed at the stroke of a pen and if they want a beach in London - anything is possible.

Verilion,
I noticed inconsistencies in the Dan Brown book - some of which have been pointed out - but that was the least of my problems! It was fun though, on one level, and I just put the thing into a whole different category, overlooking all the small details.

Shameless said...

Jessica,
Snap! So I shall keep my cute little hotel! I once read a novel in which 15 pages were dedicated to every minute detail about the stuffing of a chicken. Oops, the author may just read this! Sorry if you do, but it's a good example. And would I now be able to stuff a chicken in professional style? No.

Jessica Schneider said...

Absolutely keep it! Who cares what they think? Plus, there's no saying that a hotel won't EVER exist there. I mean, if one looked at all the detail in a Dickens or Twain work or any writer from 100+ yrs ago, there's no saying that that street/hotel/whatever would still be there or was ever there, or whatever.

Just to give you 2 more examples to reassure you: The book Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson: taken from the pov of a slave after his death. Some complained about certain railroads, this or that not existing till [insert random # of yrs later]. But while that may be true, what the readers were missing was the fact that this was being told after the character's death, and also the character was an unreliable narrator. There’s no saying that the character had his facts straight himself. This is one of the points I argued with someone about that film Momento that came out a few yrs back. I said you didn’t really know what happened since the guy telling you in the end is someone who can’t remember past 30 seconds. Would you believe someone with such a short-term memory?

Also, I have a novel where I inserted Weldon Kees into the book- all made up dialogue between him and my character. Sure, I encompassed some of Kees’ personal opinions, but it's ultimately MY Weldon Kees, not THE Weldon Kees. Just as with your street, it is YOUR street, with YOUR hotel, not THE street. You're not writing a travel guide.

And BTW- I did a post on Kees recently on my blog, if you haven't seen it already- he was a 'jack of all trades' artist as well, but known primarily for his poems.

But yes, keep the hotel, by god.

Anonymous said...

That's an amazing door.

Your post proves the point yet again that some people have way too much power over others and that they don't use it properly.

Shameless said...

Jessica,
The hotel stays! And it may be that people who pick books apart for their "not true" qualities should get a subcription to an encyclopaedia instead.

Zorak,
It's a shame the door no longer opens. It's the old entrance to a theatre beside us - hence Guignol. The theatre is still in operation, and we hear lots of laughter and applause some nights.

Anonymous said...

Oh for goodness' sakes!!!

Actually I've met MJ. He has a bookshop and I was asked to go in and sign copies of my books. I stood and waited for about 10 mins while he finished a phone call. After I introduced myself, he stood and strode across the shop, expecting me to follow. He then told an assistant (he spoke really rudely to her too) to get my books before striding back off again. He never actually spoke a single word directly to me!

Not that I was expecting red carpets or anything - far from it - just a teensy bit of good manners ...?

Anyway, the point is he's off on his own as is clear from this ridiculous eg you've given.

More lovely pix BTW ...

Shameless said...

Debi,
That's an awful story, and everything kind of adds up now. A bookshop owner who is rude like that, in this day and age, when the big bookshop corporations have their guns blazing? Goodness. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised then that he had such a brutal approach to what books we should read. I wonder what his track record was as an acquiring editor and publisher, and why he ended up leaving it behind? I mean you can't reject all books because of such little misdemeanours, surely?

Shameless said...

Someone asked today: "Spooky having the devil guarding the house?"

No, I laughed, it's spooky for those thinking about coming in uninvited!

Anonymous said...

How many other great novels are overlooked because of a so-called perceived 'problem'?
When writing a contemporary novel it would be truly difficult to keep up with traffic/city changes.
Truly stupid to waste a good book, but I would imagine this happens every day.

Anonymous said...

He writes himself - think that could also explain a lot. While other editors don't necessarily write, he probably reads a submission and thinks he could do it so much better ...

Anonymous said...

Hi Shameless, This is a subject close to my heart, I explain it all on my blog so don't want to bang on about it on yours too much, forgive me if I rant a little! My book was rejected because they got their knickers in a twist about genre - memoir or novel. I fully intended my book as a novel, but the agent who took me on was adamant she wanted to pitch it as literary memoir, and after a lot of discussion, I reluctantly went with her pitch (my previous agent had left her job without telling me, was damned hard work getting another one, my energy is horribly limited, but I did!). Subsequently, agent no.2 submitted to a mix of fiction/non-fiction editors in early 2005, and without exception they admired the writing, but felt it would be tricky to market because it seemed to straddle memoir and fiction - and I was actually told that as far as 'sick-lit' goes, their term, not mine, my book was 'far more subtle and literary' than usual - Excuse me but how can a book be too literary and subtle??? . .. what was more galling was the agent dropped me once the big names didn't bite, she didn't submit to smaller publishers on my behalf, as she had implied she would. I found out later she represents 90% non-fiction, so she had pretty much pigeonholed me to suit her own agenda, and I think she realised she had pitched it wrongly, it's NOT memoir, it's fiction, albeit autobiographical!!! Those who have read extracts of my book (on blog or cos I have sent it to them) love the writing, they don't worry is it memoir or fiction, they just want to read more: Surely, if the writing sparkles and people want to keep turning the page, that is what's important . . . I feel very disillusioned with the world of publishing, there seems to me to be little honour. Agent no.2 said I should be consoled that the editors had praised my book, because usually they rip those to shreds that they reject, but somehow that doesn't really console me! And I still have a folder of emails from agent no.1 telling me how much she loved my writing. I tracked her down at her new editing job and she promised me she would read my book, that was 20 months ago... Oh dear, sorry for going on a bit, thanks for hosting my rant . . .

Shameless said...

Nmj,

That's a very relevant comment you've made there, and I think many writers who read this blog will be able to relate to it. It can be sooooo frustrating reading replies from agents and publishers, who sometimes just don't get what it is we've tried to do.

I have the same problem with my story -and I have a post coming up on this very topic - because it is about a NZ protagonist in Europe. We like the writing, love the story, many say, but not sure if we can sell a NZ character over here (UK/US). There is a lot of proof now that this can be done. I can do it, if they just give me the chance! Or is it because they actually think the story is lousy and the writing is crap, but just don't have the heart? I'm trying some NZ publishers now - obviously.

Anonymous said...

If a character is from NZ, that is surely interesting! I just don't get their thinking - the quality of writing seems to be the last thing on their minds, it's all marketing. What is really dispiriting is the pisspoor quality of a lot of the writing that does get published.

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