Jim Talbot, a writer with a dozen unpublished novels under his belt, has been roundly rejected by every agent and publisher in the land, and is willing to go to extreme lengths to make his dream of literary stardom come true. Charles Randall, the eccentric founder and managing director of Tetragon Press, a small independent publisher that has managed to survive for thirty years in a fierce environment dominated by corporate juggernauts, is about to be brutally sacked by a newly appointed business consultant. In the cut-throat world of modern publishing, Charles and Jim's paths towards literary salvation are fraught with the most unpredictable dangers. A novel of intrigue, deceit and sheer desperation, Bestseller is a caustic portrait of contemporary culture and of Britain's obsession with fame, success and becoming the next J.K. Rowling.
|Product dimensions:||5.05(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.92(d)|
About the Author
Alessandro Gallenzi is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. As well as being a literary publisher with fifteen years of experience, he is a translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. His collection of poetry Modern Bestiary - Ars Poetastrica was published in 2005 to critical acclaim. He lives in Richmond with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
By Alessandro Gallenzi
Alma Books LtdCopyright © 2010 Alessandro Gallenzi
All rights reserved.
Jim's destiny was to be a great writer, to write a bestseller. His first novel — little more than a long short story — was written about fifteen years ago, under the encouragement of his creative-writing tutor, a retired university lecturer who had ended up committing suicide a few months later by tying a plastic bag around his head.
Just before the sad event, the man had recommended his student to a notoriously sharkish London literary agent, who had immediately decided to take him on and represent his next work, which they agreed would be a thriller called Appointment with Death. Unfortunately, writing under commission to a deadline wasn't the same as dabbling with words for an hour or two in the afternoon, and the thought of the high stakes on the table — and the agent's huge expectations — grounded Jim's flights of inspiration. As a result, Appointment with Death was somewhat lame, so that the agent asked one of his henchmen to chop it back, cut it up, sort it out and then put it back together — in other words, to rewrite it from scratch. "You see, Jim," his agent had said, wrapping him in a huge cloud from his cigarillo, "style is all very well — but we need to get to the nitty-gritty, y'know: less description, more death and a bit of bonking. How many copies do you want to sell? A hundred or a hundred thousand?"
Strangely, for all his wisdom and influence, the agent failed to place the eviscerated script — and so it was on with the second novel, this time a murder mystery set in Paris, The Woman with Three Faces. And after five months of painful silence, the agent had called to give him the good news: an American publisher — not one of the biggies, admittedly — had shown interest. Well, the advance wasn't great, in fact it barely crested four figures, but — everybody needs a springboard, right?
Jim could distinctly remember the day when he had received the black-and-white catalogue of the Pink Hippopotamus Press, with his happy, smiling young face on page twenty-four, where the book was announced for release in the following autumn. He took that catalogue everywhere — to the café, to the library, to the toilet — and looked at page twenty-four for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Sadly, two weeks later the Pink Hippopotamus Press was declared bankrupt. That was the end of The Woman with Three Faces, and his agent stopped returning his calls.
But Jim wasn't overly disheartened: he immediately set himself to write two more works, a science-fiction book with a telepathic robot as the main protagonist, and a historical novel set during the Time of Troubles, The Warrior of Kiev. With great hope and enthusiasm, he sent out manuscript after manuscript to agents, publishers and renowned authors, confident that an opportunity would soon arise. But the agents answered in unison that they were not interested in taking on any new authors; the publishers lamented that their programmes were already overstretched and that the work in question did not "fit in" with their lists, and suggested that he should contact an agent; the renowned authors didn't bother to reply.
At this point there was something of a hiatus in Jim's literary career, a pause that coincided with a series of weekly meetings with a Belgian doctor at a private psychiatric hospital. At the end of this difficult period, Jim's primal impulse was still to write — perhaps out of spite, revenge, anger, or maybe just as a sort of cathartic tool. The works written during this time — two free-verse poetry collections, a very short semi-autobiographical romance, a humorous novelty book and an experimental play — bore "all the marks of the author's deep emotional and mental turmoil". At least, that was the judgement of the Belgian doctor, who was still keeping an eye on Jim at three-month intervals. These books — coming as they did from Jim's tormented period — were never loosed upon the teetering slush piles of agents and editors, but remained stuffed in a drawer, underneath Jim's socks and underpants.
It was the run of subsequent novels that rekindled a glimmer of hope in Jim's faltering career. He felt he was entering upon his mature, creative prime, and that his latest works carried a new authority. And every now and then, in reply to all the manuscripts he sent out, a slightly more authentic letter of rejection would crop up. Jim would extract the titbits of encouragement from these letters and attach all of them, in detail, to every new proposal and submission that he sent out. One day he would get published, he was sure about this.
With his tenth novel, a naturalistic work à la Zola, he adopted a more proactive submission technique, following up the initial proposal with a phone call to editors and editorial directors. In a short time, he became a well-known figure in every publishing house. Although the editors and editorial directors were always busy in some meeting or other, or on a lunch break even at four in the afternoon, sometimes there was a secretary or assistant he could talk to about his publishing history and current situation. Little by little, he began to exist in the collective mind of the book industry as a well-defined, three-dimensional, slightly unpleasant entity: a kind of blowfly that no one can be bothered to shoo out or swat.
Jim's next novel remained unfinished, and his visits to the Belgian doctor, who issued a total ban on "any kind of artistic-creative-compositional activity", took on their former frequency. It was suggested to him that he should go on a long trip abroad, which he immediately did — though not forgetting to take a notepad and pen with him. The result was a travel book entitled Grand Tour, nearly three hundred pages long, which agents and publishers turned down with much more vehemence than any of his previous works.
He really couldn't understand these rejections, so he decided to delve even deeper into the mysterious workings of the creative process. For three months he moved into the British Library on a near-permanent basis, and devoted himself to reading and researching, making his nest at desk 372 of the Rare Books and Music reading room, where there were only a few bookworms and an air of hypnotic stillness. One late afternoon he fell asleep on a quantum-mechanics textbook, and the security guard had to shake him hard to wake him up. Another time he was caught underlining a passage with his pencil. It was his own book he was defacing, but he very nearly got ejected and banned from the library for life.
After this period of profound study, he began to spend long days in bookshops, browsing hundreds of books in a bid to answer this fundamental question: "What is the difference between a published and an unpublished book?" Is it the quality and originality of its content? Is it the title? The author's fame? The fact that it is printed and bound? That it is sold and read by other people? Jim came to the conclusion that there's no difference between the books that get printed and the infinite number of works that remain unpublished. "The only variable is chance," Jim would argue with himself. "A manuscript landing in front of the right editor at the right time. Sure, it can help to have good contacts among the editorial mafiosi, but a bit of good luck is all it takes." And yet, despite this fatalistic vision of the publishing world, he would still devour the newspapers' book-review pages, drop by the library to read books like The Writer's Bible or How to Grow a Novel, and scan through the bestsellers' charts trying to draw some conclusions from them.
On the day the Evening Standard reported that the Belgian doctor had been extradited after being accused of giving teddy bears and cotton socks to five-year-old boys, something happened to Jim. It was as though all the years of experience, the months of studying and the deep-rooted questioning of what makes a successful book came together in a brilliant fusion of creativity. He locked himself in his room and started dashing off words, inspired by a new, unknown feeling of joy. He carried on for weeks on end, hardly pausing, rarely leaving his room.
And so it was that at 3.45 that morning — in a nondescript West-London flat swallowed up by rows and rows of terraced houses sheltering their sleeping occupants, in the tomb-like silence of his writer's dungeon — the last words of his masterpiece had finally blinked on the screen.
* * *
Jim sprang up in his bed as the front door was slammed shut. He looked around for a few seconds, perplexed, then decided to sink his head back into the pillow. It was probably Janet, his landlady, dashing off to a Tibetan yoga class. Or perhaps Tom, her boyfriend, coming back from his night shift at the post office. What time was it, though? He scratched the tip of his nose, eyes still closed, as a tentacular arm stretched towards the candlewick curtains blacking out the room. Light: there was light outside. He opened one eye and strained to look at his watch, but one of the hands seemed to have fallen off. Then he understood — it was twelve o'clock — and he stretched his jaws in a soundless yawn.
There was an unpleasant smell in the air, something like scrambled eggs. The tentacle gave another little tug at the curtains, letting a white strip of dust into the room. The dim light tentatively explored his figure lying crumpled on a folding bed, the cheap pine furniture huddled in the corners, and the piles of books scattered everywhere — on the floor, on shelves, even under the bed.
Then it all came back to him: his features twisted into a smile that cheese-wired his face in half, and his fists clenched so hard under the duvet that the bed gave off a sinister creaking noise.
"Yes! ... Yes! ..."
Writing "The End" always gave him an intense joy, but the night before, when he had tapped those words on his computer keyboard, he had the definite feeling that this was the novel that was going to yank him out of obscurity and into a successful writing career.
He got out of bed, yawning, and put his ear to the bedroom door. It sounded like no one was in, so he ventured out in his usual tracksuit-trousers and pyjama-jacket nightwear. His kitchen cupboard was as empty as his stomach, and when he opened its door that same rotten smell of scrambled eggs assailed his nostrils. He wondered whether he should check out the other cupboards, but he knew that Janet kept a detailed inventory of the food situation down to the last frozen pea, and that Tom did not take kindly to that kind of liberty. There was nothing for it: he had to get down to the corner shop. Since he was going out, he could also drop by at the post office and order the stamps, and maybe pay a little visit to the library and the bookshop.
In front of the bathroom mirror, shaving himself with a razor blade past its best, he grinned at himself and muttered.
"A bestseller, yeah ... a chart-topper ..."
Afterwards he sauntered about the flat in his underpants for a while, improvising a little jig and whistling Aida's 'Triumphal March' as he cavorted into his room. He had not felt this happy, this perky, for months. He tugged at the curtains, allowing light to trickle in, and emerged from his room wearing worn-out jeans, a green mock-alpaca jacket and bright-red trainers.
It was a decent day outside, at least by London standards: mild but overcast. Jim hated the English weather, and was sick of the city's eternal pall of cloud. He'd much prefer to live in the south of France or on the Costa del Sol, tapping away on a laptop under the shade of a beach umbrella, sipping at some exotic cocktail on the seafront — but London was the place to be for an aspiring writer like him, the place where one could make useful contacts and, above all, the centre of the publishing universe. So he didn't plan to move abroad until he had established his name as a writer, which he hoped would be very soon.
Until then, he had to endure the situation a little longer, renting the dismal little room in Janet and Tom's flat. Shepherds Bush was an up-and-coming area, they'd said — well, maybe so, but Jim knew he didn't belong in a place like Shepherds Bush ... His natural habitat was only a few hundred yards away — beyond the huge roundabout which divided the rich and the poor — in the elegant villas of Holland Park and Notting Hill. So many famous writers lived there — and with a bit of luck he'd soon be catapulted into one of those sumptuous, high-ceilinged houses, among the braying grand people, the glossy posse, the chamber-music quartets, the crystal glasses warbling with Cordon Rouge. Janet and Tom had said that they intended to get married soon, in July or August, and wanted him out. They'd been repeating the same old thing for three years now, but this time it looked as if they were serious, because he had seen them writing invitation cards. God willing, he would be turning his back on the two Irish love birds and Shepherds Bush by the end of the summer.
He put the manuscript in his rucksack, unchained his bicycle from the wrought-iron fence and set off for the Fulham Post Office. On the way, he mulled over which strategy he should use this time for the proposal to publishers and agents.
* * *
Charles Randall, the editorial director of Tetragon Press, had had a dreadful weekend. The head of a small but prestigious independent publishing house that had somehow managed to survive — even if in a state of continuous near-bankruptcy — for thirty years in a fragile shell of literary quality despite the crushing advance of the corporate giants, he had decided to take some work home over the weekend: a handful of submissions to read, a script to be edited and a couple of galleys to be proofed. But once he'd got home, the mere sight of piles and piles of books, papers, catalogues, letters, bills and other rubbish had drained his will to live.
His lank figure had collapsed into a dusty old sofa, also covered with unspecified paper trash, and his gaze had wandered into the void as he looked through thick lenses encrusted with little white dots. He had retraced the entire arc of his existence, and had lingered on a distant, slightly blurred point, from which emerged the image of a young university student with long hair and an unkempt beard, a poet full of dreams and ideals who used to print political flyers and poetry pamphlets with an old hand-cranked cyclostyle. Then the beard disappeared, the hair became shorter and withdrew around the temples, and a pair of black-framed glasses sprang up onto his nose. Now he was sitting behind a desk in a tiny room in the basement of a rundown property in South-East London, surrounded by heaps of paper and books, with an ancient telephone that rattled the furniture when it rang. Newspaper clippings began to float around him: the first reviews, the first interviews. Then a femme fatale with long auburn hair, a volcano of sensuality and passion, entered the scene. And all of a sudden his desk flew into an elegant Mayfair reception room, papers and books disappeared, to be replaced by dozens of hunching, tottering figures who were gossiping whilst sipping wine and champagne in the dim smoky light. Some of those figures lit up momentarily with a halo of sanctity, showing the faces of famous poets and novelists, Nobel Prize winners, journalists and critics of a generation now forgotten. The auburn-haired woman was then spirited away by a Paris train, and a grey-haired forty-something reappeared in a dark office on the Southbank, submerged by cardboard boxes, books and other clutter, which sedimented around him. After that, a lanky figure began to run from the door of his flat to the station, catching the train at the last minute, arriving at the office, gulping down a cup of instant coffee, and then proofs, manuscripts, coffee, deadlines, phone calls, coffee, meetings, invoices, book covers, coffee — and the same lanky figure put on his coat and ran to the station again, for ten years in a row, until his hairline receded to reveal a shiny bald pate, his remaining hair went hoary, the lenses in his glasses thickened, his clothes got shabbier and mangy.
Excerpted from Bestseller by Alessandro Gallenzi. Copyright © 2010 Alessandro Gallenzi. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Gallenzi . . . slips in sound insider's judgements on how this business works. Read it for the lowdown on the low trade." —Independent
"A cutting satire on the publishing world." —Times
"Light yet serious, funny and painful, somewhat fantastic yet shot through with truth." —Scotsman
"Entertaining." —Publishers Weekly
"[A] sly, tongue-in-cheek novel that will leave readers in stitches of laughter." —Booklist