I compiled the following for discreet circulation in late 1989. Not long after there was a change of personnel and someone decided that my work was an unnecessary expense, so I was relieved of it. Relieved to be relieved of it, too, I can tell you.
Since October 1987 I have had the honor to be poison-taster (as they call it; slushpile-reader, I call it) for the Melbourne office of a multinational publishing house. I am required merely to read enough of a manuscript to recommend rejection or "stage 2" -- which can mean anything from "Hell, I can't decide, you look at it" to "This is wonderful! Publish it!" -- and if I spend more than fifteen minutes on it, that's tough. To earn the same money as a proofreader, say, I must deal with four manuscripts per hour -- look at them, make decisions, scribble reports. As well as that, since August 1988 I have typed the reports on this computer and supplied a print-out to the publisher, but that's not part of the deal. So far I have reported on over 700 manuscripts. I like to think I have been fair to them all; if I haven't, I remind myself that it's my function to recommend, the publisher's to decide.
About the 200 mark I stopped trying to think of new things to say about bad books. "Unpublishable" conveys as much to the publisher as five sentences, after all. But the borderline manuscripts, the almost-books, I spend more time on. The following is a fairly random sample of reports I have written in the last year. The first line of each report briefly describes the book. The names of authors and titles of their works are omitted to diminish my legal liability.
Author seems to have read people like Le Guin and McIntyre, and this is her attempt at a meaningful feminist other-world fantasy. She writes reasonably well, but I didn't get much impression of pace or momentum. Not publishable in Australia, but it could have possibilities in USA if the story is good enough. Worth looking at, if that interests you.
Novel -- seven people in Hong Kong
An odd sort of book, well-written, interesting, but I can't tell whether it all comes together. The basic idea is the same as Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey: seven people die in an accident, and these are their stories. But the author has added a supernatural element. The seven are seen in hauntings, and their stories are pieced together by a journalist investigating the phenomenon. Worth looking at.
Mixed-up political fantasy
Author is media director for a government department. In this novel he tries to place Aborigines in historical perspective, "from Alcheringa to Armageddon". What he achieves is an unreadable mess. (But I did like the "Cro-Magnum" people of Gondwanaland.)
Mr N's autobiography has so far progressed from 1933 to 1947, covering his childhood in Estonia. I find it very interesting. He should be encouraged to continue. We haven't heard much about Russian Orthodox immigrants.
Memoirs of a bookmaker
Book is untitled. "Memoirs of a Racist" is a possibility -- see his anti-Semitic comments in page headed "Forward". Book is a hopeless jumble.
Novel in form of schoolgirl's diary
This is so bad it's probably authentic.
Humorous novel -- out-of-work actor in London
The author suggests this book might be better appraised in UK, and I agree. There's a nice oddball quality about the book that appeals to me. Worth looking at.
Children's adventure: convict girl growing up in NSW, 1820s
I can't get excited about this, but it's plain, intelligible, informative, and no worse than some children's books I've read. With illustrations it could be OK.
This is probably the best collection of verse I have seen from your slushpile -- but don't get excited: it's unpublishable.
Author has attempted an adventure story in the tradition of Ian Fleming, William Haggard, Robert Ludlum et al. He has failed. The advent of Gorbachev has wrecked his central thesis; the rest of the damage is his own.
Short novel -- naval adventure
Brevity is its best attribute. I like the "skipper, dressed in regulation whites with epilleptes".
Fictionalized biography of A-- H--
H--, an engineer/mechanic, arrived in South Australia in time for the anti-German nastiness of 1914-18, was interned, and was deported to Germany after the war. He returned in 1929. His story is interesting. The author's promise of an account of Nazi activities in SA is interesting. But fiction overpowers fact, and the result is a mess.
200 "multicultural" jokes and yarns
There's a nice European sense of humor here. Some of the stories I read are quite funny, some not. The multicultural easily shades over to the racist, unfortunately.
Catholic missionary in outer space
The author seems a gentle, thinking, devout sort of bloke, but his book is not much more than a presentation of the problems of religious belief. The SF aspect is minimal (in places laughable). Reject prayerfully.
How rarely one sees nine-line rhyming stanzas these days! And such a fascinating rhyme scheme -- AAAABCCCB -- which, as far as I can tell, the lady keeps up for 139 stanzas. One can only admire her energy and application. One could wish to admire more about her work, but . . .
Surfing spy thriller
I don't quite get the drift, but I think it's about a public servant who starts illegally investigating a mysterious installation in NSW. He falls foul of his department and ends up dead. There are lots of people; there's a lot of travelling and surfing; the public-service aspect seems authentic. I think I could happily read this novel.
Stories of boyhood in India before Independence
The author practically says in his covering letter that this book would not interest most Australians. He also says it would sell like crazy overseas. For a self-assessment, one out of two isn't bad, I suppose.
Travel book -- personal, literary and unusual
Despite the accompanying self-promotion, usually a sign of an author's desperation, this book looks quite interesting. It's one of the few MSS I've seen lately that I wanted to go on reading. And despite N's advice to the author, the subject of Greece and Macedonia will continue to interest many Australians.
It's about the life, loves and regrets of an 83-year-old man. He is supposed to be telling these things, or thinking about them, or reliving them. All the "action" takes place in one fine day in Sydney. I don't think it works, but the author makes me think here and there that he knows what he's doing.
Two historical romances, one spy thriller (samples)
The author has nine or ten books in mind, these three becoming trilogies and the tenth being the story of his five years in jail (he's still there). Well, I suppose it keeps him off the streets.
Andrew Hume's expedition, 1874
This is fascinating stuff. Hume set out to find a "wild white man" who could have been a survivor of Leichhardt's fatal 1848 expedition. With Hume was Timothy O'Hea, the only man ever to win the VC in Canada, possibly the only person to win the VC while not actually fighting anyone. The Hume expedition failed; only one member survived. And it has been pretty much forgotten. Author is not a first-class writer, but a competent editor could make a publishable book out of this MS.
History of Poseidon boom and crash
Author turns 80 this year. His book is a sort of financial history of the Poseidon bubble. Those were the days, by George, out in the colonies, riding the stock-market roller-coaster! Not a word about the morality of the thing, its significance for Australia today, etc. -- just great fun. I would reject it, but business is business, so I suppose you'd better look at it.
It takes Tansie 900 pages just to pass through Alix's life. If she had stayed, what truly unliftable manuscript would we have been in for? (The truth, I suspect, is that there wouldn't have been a book if real-life Tansie had stayed.)
Novel, vaguely SF
I lost the thread a bit after Justin swept the railway tracks with his bold eyes.
Badly presented (smudgy photocopy, text entirely in capitals), badly written (crook spelling, grammar, punctuation), but otherwise not very interesting.
This bloke seems fair dinkum, but you can take only so much of Kath Kookaburra, Ron Redback and their animal antics. If he wants to say something about people, why doesn't he just do that?
Science Fiction with a Message
This is meant to be a moral tale, using the conventions of SF. The moral may be there, but the fiction is hopeless, and the book is written in some sub-dialect of English.
Violent contemporary novel, with added UFOs
The most interesting thing in this rambling mess of verbiage is one character's answer to the question "What was there before the universe started?" A Seven-Eleven store, he suggests. No-one can say this book doesn't have a touch of humor, but that was probably it.
Adventure/romance, with penguins
Anyone who can describe the government as a "bottom-like body" commands my respect. Reject respectfully.
Humorous, convivial fantasy
I don't know whether this is meant to be a children's book; with the illustrations it deserves it very well could be. I read most of it, and it's delightful.
Sort of history of Australia for younger readers
Author majored in history, now teaches it. The writing is not good (spirited, but careless). The history is not good: does he really believe that in 1788 "Arthur Philip landed at Port Philip and started the convict colony of NSW"?
Author's travels (London, Ethiopia, Italy), cast as fiction
I see real promise here. Impossible to tell whether the book works as a novel, semi-documentary or whatever, since this is only half of the MS. But author has a confident voice, a viewpoint, an eye for important detail, a nice narrative pace. He would need close, sympathetic editing, but on what I've read I think he could be worth it.
Semi-autobiographical novel. Category: Poor Little Rich Girl
Author writes reasonably well, but I find her story mostly boring, condescending, gushy and distasteful. The subject is potentially interesting: strict Baptist childhood, discovery of sex, money etc., marriage to millionaire, high life, fast lane etc., messy divorce etc., probably drugs etc. If we could get an eminent Baptist -- Billy Graham, say -- to announce a fatwa and order her execution . . . (Do Baptists do fatwas? I've lost touch a bit.)
(a) Cartoon strips. Reasonably well drawn, not very funny; I've seen worse in print, but not in a book. (b) Short fiction and verse. Badly written, not very funny; can't recall seeing worse in print. Should someone tell him that it's an idea to put your MS in some sort of sequence -- number the pages, say -- then not staple it in the bottom right corner?
Novel about the future of Britain
"The work", says the author, "has already been checked for spelling and grammar by a lecturer at London University." Obviously a lecturer in poststructuralist engineering, or psycho-acoustic plumbing perhaps, not English. The writing is stilted, the story (as much as I read) boring.
Contemporary novel -- entertainment industry
Most of what I read here I found distasteful, but author has an assured and individual style, so I'll recommend that someone read more of his book. It's obvious from his covering letter that he needs encouragement, obvious from this MS that his talent deserves it.
Mystery, sort of
A rollicking yarn about murder, theft, fast cars, rape, AIDS, heroin, brothels and police work. Not well written, but you can't have everything.
Semi-mystical novel, US and Latin-American setting
"He responded with a shy acquienscent grom." Now that's something I've always wanted to do: a shy grom would probably get you through so many of life's difficult situations. There's lots of stuff like that in this book. Did you know that you can become a Baba from the Three Kona plant? "To take the root of the Kona is to eradicate history." (It would certainly eradicate the Kona.) Dangerous knowledge this, I reckon, but you could edit it out, along with the boring and pretentious parts of the book. That wouldn't leave you with too many pages.
Bad verse, corny jokes etc.
It's dedicated to his dear wife Min, who reckons he shouldn't have bothered. Agree with Min.