Talk at Birkbeck by a literary agent and consultant

Last week Tuesday, I attended a talk by a literary agent and consultant as part of the Creative Writing MA course at Birkbeck University, which I am currently undertaking. It was an informative talk about the marketplace and how to get published hosted by the Creative Writing MA Programme Director (who is also a prolific novelist).

One thing that irked me, however, was the agent / consultant’s view of the marketplace and, while I’m sure that his words accurately reflect his many years of experience in the field, it was very black-and-white the majority of the time while at other times he would admit that every so often a writer comes along and blows all of the rules out of the handbook – in short, it felt like he was contradicting himself. One of those times was his answer to my question:

‘You spoke of a revival in recent times of the short story genre. Is it still the case that an unpublished writer will be turned down if s/he approaches an agent / publisher with a collection of short stories, and encouraged to write a novel, instead.’ (Or something along those lines.)

He said categorically yes, and went on to suggest that short stories are all very well in anthologies but publishers don’t give the time of day to unpublished writers who submit short story collections. His answer disappointed me, not only because I had hoped that the marketplace had begun to stir to the power and potency of the short story. I had expected an answer along these lines BUT had hoped that he would say that sometimes a short story writer will come along who is the new Raymond Carver / Alice Munro / Lorrie Moore / Jhumpa Lahiri / Junot Dias / Ali Smith / Anton Chekhov (!) and exceptions are made. Because exceptions ARE made. Exceptions are always made for the exceptional. There are so many writers who are short story writers and not novelists, yet they aren’t told a categorical ‘you will only be published if you write a novel’. Or if they are told this by one publisher (or ten publishers), they will one day find a publisher who will take them on. And if they really are the new Ali Smith, it’ll be sooner rather than later.

I’m not saying that I am one of those writers necessarily, and in fact I personally feel that the novel form is more suited to my more lateral way of thinking (the short story requires a narrower focus), but I am disgruntled at the narrowness of the ‘market’ and the people who peddle for the marketplace.

The MA Programme Director thankfully saved the evening by saying that, as writers, we really shouldn’t be worrying too much about the marketplace, that we must write what it is within us to write, and suggesting that, as producers, the readers should follow US and not the other way round. We can create a demand for what it is we produce. And above all, what a waste of time worrying about pandering to a carnivorous marketplace since by the time your book is ready the ‘market’ may have become vegetarian.