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3 Oct 2014
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Forgotten Author
by Rebecca Jones

How often do we hear about attractive young writers being offered huge advances for their books? Publishing today seems to be as much about who you are, as what you write. But where does that leave older writers?

Take someone like Francis King. His first novel was published in 1946, and he was soon being tipped as the most promising writer of his generation. He's written short stories, poetry, several biographies and travel books during a publishing career which spans more than half a century.

"If you had a list of great writers of the last forty years, he should definitely be up there and with names like Graham Greene and Nabokov," says his fellow writer Beryl Bainbridge. "He is of that calibre and it's ridiculous he's not more known."

Francis King's new book, "Prodigies", is about three women who abandon their privileged existence to explore Africa in the eighteen sixties. It's his twenty seventh novel.

But, at the age of seventy eight, he has had huge problems getting it published. Three large firms rejected it - indeed it was published only after a small independent company stepped in. Francis King is in no doubt why he's become unfashionable. He says it's his age.

"This is a country in which if you're old you become invisible," he says. "I mean people only notice you if you're in front of them and taking up too much time at the checkout, or if you fall over in the street then they notice you. And the same is true if you're a writer. I feel that I'm writing probably my best work, but I do feel it's not getting the due that it should have."

And Francis King is not alone. Writers like William Trevor and Philip Oakes, who are also in their seventies, rarely make the headlines. And Patrick Janson-Smith, a Director at the Random House Group, admits that's because publishing is now driven by marketing.

"This is a very fast moving age and we're taking the soft option," he says. "An author who is very marketable is maybe attractive, eloquent or loquacious. You're vying for attention with literally thousands of other books published each and every year."

And it is not just publishers. Booksellers too are market-oriented. Beryl Bainbridge thinks it reflects a general "dumbing-down" in society.

"If Francis wrote another novel now and sent in a photograph of a bimbo and said he was twenty three and he was pregnant for the eighteenth time, he'd be all over the newspapers", she says.

In fact Francis King has already finished his next book. It's about refugees living in London and is called "The Nick of Time". But at the moment, he does not know whether it will be published or not. But at a time when youth is a best seller, he knows he's as likely to be judged by his wrinkles as his words.

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