Sunday 28 December 2008

“Mal tu par l'encre même en sanglots sibyllins” (Stéphane Mallarmé)

“Badly silenced by ink in sibylline sobs.”

I’m often asked “How do you select your books for publication?” or “What do you look for in a novel?” This is a question that I find rather awkward to answer in a few words.

I believe that publishing is an incredibly subjective business, and that publishing programmes are an idiosyncratic expression of their publishers’ tastes. Having said that, I also believe that there are – or at least there should be – some recognizable and universally accepted standards concerning grammar, style, characterization and plot.

For me, a book must work on a number of levels: be ambitious in terms of themes and scope, but not over-intellectual. Style is certainly the most important variable in the equation, and what I generally look for is a distinctive voice, like an artist’s brushstroke.

I am not particularly keen on experimental writing, with multi-perspectives and stream of consciousness. I don’t like conceits such as a turtle or a dog being the narrator. I think that the simpler and the more linear the narrative, the more satisfactory is the result for the reader. What I also love is to detect a touch of humour – so long as it doesn’t verge on the clownish, the grotesque or the absurd.

I’m not interested in detective stories and gory thrillers. Science fiction doesn’t turn me on – I usually find historical novels boring. I prefer third-person narratives to first-person ones.

Whenever I receive a submission, I try to read it cold, without looking at the author’s CV or any endorsements. If the work is good, it should grab my attention and sustain my interest from page one. I hate anything that is predictable or formulaic.

Above all, I try not to follow the general taste or any particular fashion, and to be as critical towards a new work of fiction as I would be towards a classic, continually asking myself: “Would this stand the test of time? – Or at least ten, twenty years?”

So, you see, it’s actually pretty easy after all.


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