Picador and Graham Swift


A publishing story hit Britain this week. Robert McCrum, in a feature called Literary Lottery in the Observer, revealed that Graham Swift's agent is putting not only his latest novel up for grabs in a rights' auction, but he is ready to sell Graham Swift's backlist along with it.

Four novelists have consistently hit the high notes in the Eng Lit generation just ahead of my own (skipping American writers, who have their own American Lit genre, and focusing on Commonwealth writers). This is a personal view ... others would put Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis up there, but they are so consciously modish I expect them to date. Others are contenders by name but not by quality, still others maybe have the quality (eg Jane Gardam, James Hamilton Patterson) without the stellar reputation. Timothy Mo started off on my list years ago but dropped out of the field. The four that have stayed the pace are Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Graham Swift. They will be known for their oeuvres, their books will be stay in print as modern classics. Graham Swift is worth bidding for.

Robert McCrum (who wrote the article) is an odd kettle of fish. I knew him years ago when he was tutoring on an Arvon writers course. His first novel had compelling sections, and I hoped more tautness of structure would appear in time. Instead we have books such as "The Story of Language", one about recovering from a stroke, and he is currently working on a biography of P.G.Wodehouse. He's a novelist who's gone missing. For a while he was an editorial director at Faber, now he's Literary editor at the Observer. When writers were coming out in force on behalf of Salman Rushdie, Robert McCrum joined the frontline ... yet curiously found himself attacking Rushdie's position. His heart's with the writer, but his head's locked in its media position. He would do well to take a year off and write as outrageous a novel as he dare, so setting a few demons loose. In the article you sense him straining on the publisher's behalf without quite daring to take sides against Swift.

Me, I'm on Graham Swift's side. The publisher he's moving from is Peter Straus at Picador. I'm all for writers moving everything from Picador. I weep no tears for Peter Straus's feelings when someone renege's on an agreement with him. He blocked Picador's contractual agreement to publish my first novel On Bended Knees in paperback, despite great reviews and its being shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. When my editor at Macmillan subsequently agreed with enthusiasm to publish my second novel, he blocked that too. Good on Graham Swift moving his whole backlist from Picador. For Peter Straus, it's karma. For Swift, I presume it must be a blessed relief. Living writers should be utterly free to care for their life's work in whatever way they choose.

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