December 14, 2017

Could you spot a Nobel prize winner? Nineteen publishers couldn’t…


Claude Simon in 1967

Are we living in an era of throwaway literature? Seventy-year-old French writer Serge Volle thought so, and went about proving it. He sent chapters of one of his favourite classics to publishers, to see if they’d consider publishing it. The result? A resounding “thanks but no thanks.”

According a recent report by Agence France-Presse, Volle submitted fifty pages of The Palace by 1985 Nobelist Claude Simon to nineteen French publishers. The book was originally published in 1962 by Éditions de Minuit. In response to his submission, Volle received twelve rejections. Seven publishers didn’t reply at all.

Interviewed by French public radio on Monday, Volle said one editor had told him that the book’s “endlessly long sentences completely lose the reader,” and that it lacked “a real plot with well-drawn characters.” Ouch.

Simon’s style certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He was well-known for using deliberately long sentences, prose that meanders without punctuation, and interior monologues, and was labelled by some as a father of the “nouveau roman” movement. The Palace was one of his most controversial books, set in the thirties during the Spanish civil war. Simon had fought for the Republicans, as had George Orwell. In 1985, Simon openly attacked Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which detailed the Ninety Eighty-Four author’s time in the war. Simon claimed it had been “faked from the very first sentence” (as he told Anthony Cheal Pugh in a 1985 interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction). Many critics called the The Palace a thinly-veiled attack on Orwell.

The late, great Christopher Hitchens was not a fan of Simon’s writings or political statements, as Noel Malcolm wrote in a Telegraph review of Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters back in 2002:

The post-modernists are dispatched with ruthless efficiency. His special bête noire is the French novelist Claude Simon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985 for a novel based on the idea that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was, as Simon put it, “faked from the very first sentence”. The way in which Hitchens goes through Simon’s claims (and his extraordinarily ungainly prose) should give “deconstruction” a whole new meaning on the rive gauche.

Hitchens himself wrote, “The award of the Nobel prize to such a shady literary enterprise is a minor scandal, reflecting the intellectual rot which had been spread by pseudo intellectuals.”

(In fairness, though, Hitch hated a lot of poeple — see our own collection of his Last Interview and Other Conversations.)

At any rate, Agence France-Presse reports that Volle’s experiment led him to conclude, in a paraphrase of Proust, that you to be “famous to be published. We are living in the era of the throwaway book.”

A reasonable comment. Just look at your local bestseller list: it will be dominated by the same old brand-name authors. But taste in literature changes, and what might have been popular over fifty years ago isn’t necessarily going to resonate with readers now. Plus this was a book that seriously divided opinion even back when it was published.  Is it surprising it was “rejected”?



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.