Hamish Hamilton’s Simon Prosser, who launched the careers of Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, among others, recently told Time Out London (print only) “what he looks for in a new writer”:
People often ask me how much of a manuscript you need to read before you know it is any good. I usually reply that I read the first 50 pages and if I’m hooked by then, I’ll read to the end.
The truth, though, is both simpler and more complicated. In fact, it only takes two pages sometimes just two paragraphs to know that someone really can’t write.
Occasionally you can tell from the cover letter alone, and in extreme cases even from the address label….
Whether two lines or two thousand, the real pleasure comes when you realise someone can actually write. And it’s then the next problem arises. As Virginia Woolf put it, a book isn’t made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built into arcades or domes: ‘And for the most part novels do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain.’ A book needs shapeliness, texture, tension, depth, shadow, light, surprises, secrets the list goes on. It needs something to say and it needs to know how to say it.
As readers, we want to be flirted with, flattered, gripped, excited, seduced, transported. (It’s hard to avoid the language of the erotic. ) And it is versions of these qualities that every editor looks for in a manuscript. It is said that everyone has a book in them, but the sad truth is that it probably isn’t a great one. Perhaps this is why all editors are eternal optimists: we need to be.
Of course, part of an editor’s job is to edit which means to help a writer do best what he or she set out to do.
And this too can be a pleasure, unless you are dealing with someone who cannot bear to change even a word. I’ve always pitied William Faulkner’s editor, given his author’s strong views on the subject: ‘I get drunk, I get mad, I get thrown from horses, I get all sorts of things. But I don’t get edited. I’d rather see my wife get fucked by the stable boy!’