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Me and my rejections

Me and my rejections

This is how literary myths start. On winning the Booker Prize, Douglas Stuart revealed that his agent, Anna Stein, had sent the manuscript to what seemed like pretty much all of New York’s publishing houses and had received 21 rejections. It turned out though that Stein was simply trying to spare his author’s feelings; the real number of rejections was 32. Now it emerges that a further 12 in the UK turned him down too. Now that the novel has swept all before it Stein has revealed that “I’ve had messages of congratulation on the book’s success. The publishing world is small, many of them are my friends. I wouldn’t say that some aren’t kicking themselves, but we’ve all passed on books that have gone on to be successful.” Tactfully put. Naturally a rejection is hardly a badge of honour but the exponential growth – 21 to 32 to 44 – of Stuart’s “Thanks but no thanks” list nevertheless seems like an epic nose-thumbing to all those who didn’t snap him up when they had the chance.

This is always a vital time of year for booksellers, indeed for all retailers, and the Christmas period usually brings in around £40 million in sales. Thanks to lockdown, however, that sum was reached in early November when readers hunkered down for the month. However, now that, tier permitting, bookshops have been allowed to reopen, what have the first-through-the-door customers been buying in the flesh? At Waterstone’s flagship store on London’s Piccadilly a festive elf (no less) cut a ribbon at the entrance and allowed the booklovers in; the first book rung up at the tills was, no surprise, Shuggie Bain. Douglas Stuart’s novel has apparently been going great guns around the country even in lockdown, with online and click-and-collect sales, but nothing quite beats truffling out a book from packed shelves in a good old-fashioned bookshop. There was a Booker Prize connection in Liskeard in Cornwall, too, where the first customer in to its local store went straight for The Sentinel by the Child brothers, Lee and Andrew. Lee was of course one of the judges who picked Shuggie Bain as this year’s Booker Prize winner.

Sameer Rahim, another of the judges, has been discussing his time with the 162 submitted novels and the demands they made on him – not least as a new father. “Lockdown didn’t affect my evenings,” he said, since, courtesy of the babe, they “were curfewed well before March.” But he quickly found a routine: “When the baby slept, usually in the four-hour window between eight and midnight, then I read. I became an expert at spotting gaps when extra reading could be squeezed in: while stirring a risotto, for instance, or holding a broken toilet seat together as the glue dried.” Oh the glamour of judging the world’s premier literary prize. He reveals that rather than read a novel from start to finish: “I preferred to read two halves of two. That allowed extra time for each novel to work on my subconscious, and gave me a shot of adrenaline as I opened a new book mid-evening.” But above all there was a sense of romance to the process: “I never lost the excitement of picking what to read next. At a time without socialising, I went on a series of Booker blind dates.” So picture Sameer, baby asleep, loo seat fixed, settling down with low lighting, mood music in the background and a new novel each night.

What do car speedster Lewis Hamilton, baker Prue Leith and double Booker Prize champ Margaret Atwood have in common? No, Hamilton and Leith do not read The Handmaid’s Tale as they drive around in circles and mix batter also in circles, but all three will be guest editors of BBC Radio Four’s blue-chip Today programme. Atwood’s theme will be climate change, something that has long exercised her, and one of her interviewees is Greta Thunberg (herself a guest editor last year) and they will discuss the small matter of “what we can do to save the planet”. The guest-edited programmes will air between Boxing Day and New Year.