We’re preparing, me, Norman Thrush and Fips, and we have been looking closely at the books written by our shortlisted guests. Dear me. I have a book project on the go, and I’m not discouraged by what I’ve seen of this end of the competition. I’ve always thought that Phineas Finn written for the modern age would make a great novel. He could be given one or two new causes which he would end up fighting alone, as he did in the original – I’d make him a champion of the railways, with the twin aims of taking freight from the roads, and, in part by creating new regional distribution hubs as part of that process, to re-establish the country as non-metropolitan, where most people lived close to them in a network of towns and villages connected by trains. To that I would add a litter offensive whereby he proposed as a solution to the wretched detritus amongst which we live, to have prisoners, who would be otherwise locked up in cells for 23 out of 24 hours, out in a chain gang, getting fresh air, being given a purpose, and repaying their debt to society, by picking it all up. There are other policy initiatives available to him, like proper dog licensing, and a terrific scheme to leverage tax out of multi-national retailers through their branded rubbish that their customers throw away, but they can wait for subsequent editions, so that in time I’d revisit his career as Trollope did himself; quite literally Re: re: Phineas Re-redux, like an email.
As no sort of celebrity myself, the straight to the publisher’s desk route to getting a book out is disbarred to me. I don’t fancy lying at the bottom of a slush pile for months on end, and Fips tells me he’s not interested however it turns out, but that he’s definitely not interested until the manuscript is complete and has been edited. The way in, it seems to me, is through competitions of which there are many. I found one the other day that invited first pages submitted with a short synopsis. I went to work on mine, ignoring other claims on my time (I do not ignore my principal payers Dog’s Bowl, but I haven’t spent enough time developing my new idea with a couple of large food suppliers. The idea is simple enough – you know Willy Wonka, and the campaign Cadburys are running with hidden Easter Eggs? Well, this is my idea, which I think can maintain an eloquent corner in the national conversation: you get purveyors of filth like McDonalds, or Domino’s Pizza, places like that, and instead of hiding a Golden Ticket, what they do is to hide Michelin Star versions of their standard fayre in the general distribution of goods. That way, the public can be alerted to the fact that they might happen across a truffle pizza, or a rare breed filet burger by chance. They win no prize other than the delight of consuming it. Think about it, everyone will start thinking, ‘is this it? Is that what proper food tastes like?’ It will make them start to consider what they’re eating, to desire to know what it is to savour food. And this way, low-end providers will contribute positively to the debate on obesity and food knowledge. Add in this: say 5% of the pizzas are made with a good quality truffle oil, and a further 5% are made with any old truffle oil. Suddenly a significant proportion of your customer base is stopping to think, ‘is this sensation that which rich people with taste crave? How might I tell the difference between a merely good and a great version?’ Within a few months, we will establish a gourmand base in the country to rival the French, but obviously without actually having to be French – what’s not to like about that? Very exciting project, to which I am not devoting enough time. I digress.).
Virtually all of that paragraph took place within a bracket, which brings me back to the original point (see the example below) … ignoring other claims on my time, by polishing the opening pages of my novel – reasoning that in a competition of such ephemeral nonsense, that I wouldn’t be facing very stiff competition and I’d clock an early win. Imagine my surprise when the initial results came through and showed that I had failed to make the longlist of the twenty best opening pages. They are to announce the final five shortly, then there’s some more voting before a winner is declared. Until then they are putting up on their Twitter Feed(?)/Page(?), some opening lines from the twenty, plus others that they say really stood out in the original triage. Of course, ego draws out my curiosity, and as I begin to read the lines that have excited them, I realise that it wasn’t a first page competition at all, it’s first sentences that they were after. That immediately made my heart sink, because I’d gone with the racy, and slightly incongruous within the context of my heavyweight literary novel, “The lycra in her light cotton, lemon-coloured knickers allowed them to stretch to a semi-translucence as she adjusted them over her freshly waxed vagina.” Which was made all the worse by my other realisation that most of the entrants and all of the judges were women, who preferred stuff like:
“The wind buffetts (their spelling) Yana’s face; city fumes and dust and the faintest scent of the mountain which she might never see again.” Which besides other things, isn’t an actual sentence. And this: “He’d agreed to all of it: to be driven out to the middle of nowhere (our HQ), to do he-knew-not-what (the ‘Leaders of Tomorrow’ development programme) with a bunch of people he didn’t know from Adam.” To which the only reasonable critical response should be – let’s ignore the words for now and concentrate on those brackets.
Mine was meant as an acerbic judgment on the standardised structural norms of the Victorian novel, a point which could easily have been discerned when the sentence was read in its wider context, and which they obviously hadn’t bothered to do. No sour grapes on my part when I say that the gatekeepers to literary careers in this country would be incapable of judging who is the most cunning out of Joey Essex and the Duchess of Sussex.
From its titillating opening, mine soon moves on into an intellectual novel of high morals and conflicted political aspirations, but who wants to hang around for that? – these first page results are published in the same week in which we learned that whilst in office as Prime Minister, Theresa May found time to read just …. The Harry Potter novels. That sounds positively enlightened par rapport recent Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who felt obliged to concede publicly that he was unable to read and write. Yet it was not very many years ago when Prime Ministers were themselves novelists. Good ones too.
It means that there’s only one thing to do with my early draft, if I am to join the ranks of the successful.
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Many thanks to Erik Mclean for the drunk in a panda mask image.