Publishing a first novel has never been more difficult. This is partly because of the huge number of aspiring writers, most of whom, these days, have a computer and e-mail rather than the less convenient typewriter and Tippex. But it is also down to publishers themselves. Having allowed the number of titles printed each year to exceed 100,000, they are belatedly recognising the need to reduce their output. At the same time, increased production and marketing costs demand ever-higher sales in order for a profit to be made. Predictably, those not already published have been the first to find themselves shut out.
As a result, some people worry that genuinely good works are being overlooked, with publishers accepting a first novel only if it is trendy, shocking or written by an attractive twenty-something. This worry was heightened last year when the Sunday Times submitted a pre-vious Booker winner, V S Naipaul's In a Free State, to 20 pub lishers and agents, without success. Naipaul himself lamented that nowadays "there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is".
In principle, therefore, a rare venture that champions the great unread is to be commended. While most publishers have stopped accepting unsolicited material, Macmillan New Writing (MNW), an imprint of Macmillan, encourages it. Since February last year, it has received more than 3,000 manuscripts, of which six are published on 7 April, to be followed by one a month. That's not a high acceptance rate, but MNW has certainly made a dent in the slush pile of work that makes its way around agents and publishers.
However, the imprint is no charity: it gets world rights to each of the titles; the writers sign non-negotiable contracts and receive no advance; and there will be no big marketing campaign. From MNW's point of view, the exercise is about uncovering a future star cheaply; from the writer's, it is simply about getting a novel into print - high-volume sales are unlikely. So it isn't vanity publishing, but it's not quite the real thing either - an impression amplified by the whiff of away-day jollity in the authors' biographical notes on the book jackets (one reads: "He says hi and hopes you're okay").
The scheme has already attracted high- profile opponents: Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer, called it an "astounding abdication of cultural responsibility"; Hari Kunzru labelled it the "Ryanair of publishing"; the literary agent Jonny Geller suggested that it did not have "a hope in hell" of succeeding. The sheer invective has inspired Michael Barnard, the publisher of MNW, to write Transparent Imprint, a slim volume defending his programme, which is also published this month.
One observation about the first six novels is that they all would have benefited from more rigorous editing. Although the standard ranges from dreadful to decent, it isn't hard to see why none attracted the conventional publishers. Closest to the dreadful end of the spectrum is Conor Corderoy's profoundly flawed Dark Rain, set in a future of perpetual downpour from which only the wealthy are spared. The hero, a maverick cop, investigates a murder and in turn discovers a conspiracy against mankind itself. In places it is fun - if at times a bit close to Blade Runner - but the plot's excesses require disbelief to be not so much suspended as garrotted. Corderoy matches the grim setting with short sentences that drip with contrived machismo. The dialogue is worse, with a typical exchange running like this:
"Look, O'Neil, I don't like this any more than you do. But this comes from right up top . . ."
"Stop it. You're breaking my heart."
In Taking Comfort, Roger Morris's satire on marketing, be- leaguered Rob witnesses a suicide on his way to work and then stumbles upon several more gruesome events, including a murder. Strangely, Rob takes a "souvenir" from each scene. It's an interesting idea, and there are flashes of competent prose, but the novel is undone by a fault common to many debuts: an overambitious structural theme that ends up suffocating the plot. Each chapter is loosely based on a consumer item, with parti-cular reference made to its corny luxuriousness. In a chapter entitled "The Yves Rocher Extreme Comfort Lipstick Bronze", Morris stops the action and quotes the fatuous blurb on the packaging ("Its fine film texture glides over your lips for a sensation of absolute comfort and impeccable hold"), while noting a receptionist's tragic reliance on the veneer of glamour it supplies. Eventually we are left with a diatribe on modern life which reads like a short story that outstayed its welcome.
Selfish Jean by Cate Sweeney, The Manuscript by Michael Stephen Fuchs and Across the Mystic Shore by Suroopa Mukherjee are less fatally flawed, but fail to grip. Sweeney's novel, a light piece about adoption, has an interesting sub-plot, but lacks punch. The Manuscript, a thriller about the search for an antique document that is said to explain the meaning of life, relies on obvious authorial involvement, notably in the characters' instant, unquestioning faith in the document's omnipotence. Across the Mystic Shore, a story of womanhood in India, is more literary, and is decently written, but remains flat for so long that the reader is unlikely to be engaged by the time events begin to mature.
Most initially arresting is North by Brian Martin, about a beautiful, posh schoolboy who has a triangular affair with two teachers, one female and the other male. It is narrated by an odd figure who is involved in the plot but distances himself from it. Martin's crisp, lofty prose is a great success at first, and provides his snobbish narrator with a good line in short, dismissive character descriptions: an acquaintance's pregnant wife is portrayed as "fattening to the task of parturition". Later, however, the language loses some of its finesse ("He became a key player in that game of love"), and Martin's attempt to create a cultivated setting sometimes leads him into caricature. He also relies too heavily on literary references: a good percentage of the canon is name-dropped in the first few pages; and when, in the space of four lines, he misquotes Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Larkin's "Aubade", one cries out for an editor to step in.
It remains to be seen whether any of MNW's authors succeeds. But if these novels were worth publishing at all (and I'm not convinced that they were), they needed better support at the final draft stage. More seriously, by making publication in effect non-paying, MNW demotes fiction-writing to the status of a hobby. Talent needs to be nurtured; those who possess it require remuneration. MNW offers neither satisfactorily, and a lower standard of novel seems a likely outcome. Ultimately, the biggest loss is to the reader.