When someone said this to me the other day, I first ignored it, assuming it was a joke. Or a slip of the tongue. Maybe she didn't say Oxford; maybe she said, "the University of Common Sense and Jolly Good Writing". But then she said it again, more clearly. "No, seriously: if you go into Waterstone's and pick up ten books, five of the authors have been to Oxford and the other five have Creative Writing MAs. Literally. I'm not joking."
This is utter tosh, and I told her so. It's patently false. What I didn't say is that it's stupidly self-destructive, the sort of rabid excuse that multi-rejected writers use when they are scraping the barrel of reassurance. (Remember, I was a rabid and multi-rejected writer once. I know what it feels like and I hugely sympathise, but my ignorance now embarrasses me. I probably spoke from the wrong end of my body sometimes. Hell, maybe I still do. Please tell me when that happens.)
Besides, how do publishers know if you've been to Oxford when they ask to see your MS, eh? It's not as though you would say in your covering letter, "I didn't go to Oxford. Sorry. And I'm not bestest friends with Martin Amis, either. Boo hoo." You wouldn't mention your university because it would be as irrelevant as the fact that you once went on holiday to Lyme Regis or have ridden a yak, unless your book is about Lyme Regis or yak-riding.
Mind you, this same aspiring writer also told me that publishers and agents don't read covering letters. They do, actually, unless they have already said they aren't receiving submissions, in which case why should they even open it, let alone read it? I grant you that they might occasionally read the sample first, if they're feeling contrary, and the sample might be so bad that they don't read the covering letter - but trust me: if the writing's not shite, they'll read the letter. I grant you also that they don't always read the whole letter: sometimes they don't need to. Sometimes the first few lines tell them all they need to know. Honestly, I've seen covering letters where the first sentence was so rotten that to read the second one would probably be fatal. I'm not talking about marginal rot; more hyperboliferous shite.
But, back to Oxford, or your (and my) not having been there.
This attitude of ignorance about the reasons why agents and publishers make their sometimes unwelcome - sometimes even stupid, but not that stupid - decisions, is what made me start this blog. It is what keeps me crabbit. It is also not what I expect to hear from any writer who is going about publication the right way. This type of refusal to face the truth will blind you to it. It's also a sign of fear: you're too frightened to face the fact that your book may not be good enough or not publishable and you prefer to blame the foolish publishers and agents for ignoring you because you went to the wrong university, or not a university at all. As if they care. Honestly, they've got more moths in their muesli* to worry about.
[*Sore point. Anyone know how to remove moths from cereal cupboards?]
- Have you written a book they can sell?
- Can they sell the book you have written? That's the same, by the way, but it's very important so I've said it twice. Deliberate tautology.
- Are you a complete divot who will impede their ability to sell your book through your foolish behaviour and refusal to learn how publishing works? [NB many published writers are divots but it's recommended to hide such traits until after signing the deal.]
Mind you, I did once spend a very happy weekend in Oxford some years ago, so maybe that thing about needing to have been to Oxford is true after all. Eureka! The answer to your publishing dreams: buy yourself a weekend return ticket to Oxford. WTH didn't I think of that before and save myself a load of heartache?
Alternatively, write a publishable book and work your butt off to make it so. And then submit it with a large dollop of common sense. And magic fairy dust.
PS Some clever people go to Oxford; others don't. One of the things that marks clever people out is that they have an unsurprising tendency to be clever. Clever people have this bizarre habit of succeeding quite often at some of what they set out to do. However, lots of equally clever people didn't go to Oxford. They, being equally clever, will be equally likely to succeed at what they set out to do. And if that's writing books, that's what they will succeed at.
PPS By the way, what's wrong with Cambridge?
PPS Cambridge is where I'm going to be this weekend. I hope to see some of you there at the lovely Cambridge Wordfest. If you're free at 10.30 on Saturday, head along to the Cambridge Union Dining-Room, on Bridge St. Booking here. Who knows? Maybe it's even better than going to Oxford.