Literary agents read hundreds of novels by little-known authors-few become classics. Hilary Rubinstein describes hitting the jackpot with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jimby Hilary Rubinstein / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Victor Gollancz Ltd
14 Henrietta Street
Dear Kingsley Amis
I don’t know whether you will remember me, but we used occasionally to meet for breakfast at Lyons in the Cornmarket, before you left Oxford for Swansea, and I came to London to work here. I happened to spot in the contributors note at the back of the recently published PEN Poetry Anthology that you are currently writing a novel set in a provincial university. If you are not committed elsewhere, would you care to send it to us when it is finished?
I must have written a letter of that kind dozens of times in my 13 years with my uncle Victor Gollancz and subsequently in my career as a literary agent. Sometimes I got no reply. Sometimes I acquired a new author. In the case of Kingsley Amis I was fortunate enough to hit a jackpot. I had an encouraging response from Kingsley in Swansea, and about six months later Lucky Jim arrived on my desk.
I myself was luckier than I knew. This wasn’t Kingsley’s first novel. I discovered later that his first work, The Legacy, had done the rounds unsuccessfully for two years, to Gollancz among others, and an earlier draft of Lucky Jim had also been seen and rejected by a few houses. Moreover, Kingsley was already committed-morally at least-to at least one other London publisher. Doreen Marston, the chief reader for Collins and the mother of one of Kingsley’s Oxford friends, had taken the trouble to send Kingsley a long, detailed critique of The Legacy, complaining, among much else, of repetition, lack of suspense, weak feminine characterisation and, astonishingly, “total lack of humour.” But she had ended on a positive note, and urged Kingsley to send her his next work. She didn’t pull her punches, but she believed that Kingsley had appreciated her efforts. She was bitterly hurt when his new book ended up on my desk and not on hers.
People have often asked whether I recognised that I was reading a seminal novel of our times. Briefly, the answer must be “no.” But I do remember a moistening of my palms as I read it-what Godfrey Smith terms “the tingle factor.” I thought the book a tour de force with a quite underivative kind of humour. The opening pages inspired an immediate confidence that…