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 / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 the author knew what he was about, which lasted throughout the whole read. It was emphatically a book that one would be proud to publish. But a potential world best- seller? That didn’t seem so likely. Oxbridge novels always found a domestic market, but one about the frustrations of a young lecturer at a redbrick university appeared altogether less viable, especially as the book seemed so abrasive and so determinedly philistine. Interestingly, John Braine’s Room at the Top, published three years later, was also turned down by a raft of publishers, Gollancz included, before striking gold with the long-since defunct Eyre and Spottiswoode. I would never have guessed that Lucky Jim would enjoy such a sustained success, both in the US and in its many translated editions world-wide.
My uncle disapproved of extensive editing, believing that an author should be allowed to have the book printed as he wished. But anyway Kingsley never needed editing-at least while I was at Gollancz. I remember taking up with him only two points about Lucky Jim. I didn’t much care for the title, thinking it on the vulgar side. Happily, with hindsight, my objection was overruled. And I queried Kingsley about the plausibility of his central character, Jim Dixon, consuming ten pints at the local on the Welch weekend, knowing that two was about my limit. Kingsley gave me a pitying look: I was never going to be much of a drinking companion for him. On re-reading the book recently, however, I found that Kingsley did lower Dixon’s intake; at least he only owns up to “seven or eight possibly.”
I was all for the book, and my enthusiasm was backed up by our chief reader. Victor himself was lukewarm-probably because Kingsley’s derision of pomposity and cant was too close to the bone for his comfort-but grudgingly agreed to my making an offer of an advance of ?100. Eric Jacobs, Kingsley’s biographer, reported that the first printing was a preposterous 750 copies, but he got it wrong. Victor may not have cared for the work, but we did print 2,000 copies-our usual for a first novel. Quite soon, helped by a plethora of glowing reviews and a strong puff from CP Snow, we ordered a reprint of 1,000. The third printing, however, was a pathetic 750 copies, despite protests from myself and others who could see that the book was taking off in a big way. Soon after, though, we were reprinting 3,000 copies at a time.
Would the book have had a different start in life if Kingsley had had an agent for his first book? Not at that time. Multiple submissions or auctions were almost unknown then, and ?100 was a standard advance for almost all debutante novels. But if Lucky Jim were to turn up on my agent’s desk now, I would certainly want to increase its prospects at birth by sending the book simultaneously to a select half-dozen publishers. I believe that I would have had several bids offering significant five-figure advances, and with luck a promotion and marketing budget written into the contract. But Victor would not have been one of the bidders. He detested auctions and agents equally.
Over the years I have read nearly everything that Kingsley published, always with some relish but also with growing reservations. It was when I was reading One Fat Englishman that I first became conscious of what I believe to be a strong trait of self-disgust in his character.
I can think of a few authors who strike me as not really liking themselves much, but that feature was stronger in Kingsley than in anyone else I can think of. And, for me at least, it marred much of his work.
When he died in October, I decided to read Lucky Jim again. I hadn’t opened the book since I read it in typescript 42 years ago. To my delight I found it as brilliantly clever and exuberantly funny as I did when I read it the first time. The two great scenes-the burning of the bedclothes and the Merrie England speech-had me laughing aloud once more, something I almost never do. Professor Welch and his son Bernard are wonderfully drawn, but the great success of the book is the character of the neurotic Margaret. Whether she was drawn from Philip Larkin’s long-time companion Monica Jones or not is immaterial; her dialogue is faultlessly convincing.
The book has not lost its relevance; it reads as freshly as it ever did. It is the book of a young man relishing the chance to show off his protean gifts. There is just one trace of the negative side of Jim Dixon’s, and ultimately Kingsley’s, nature. It comes on the penultimate page, when Christine and Dixon are celebrating their freedom from their respective entanglements. “Dixon thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing.”
I am sure that Kingsley, who later became more famous for bile than for joy, must often have thought the same thing of himself.