Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Editor at Bloomsbury, please, please love my book - Alice Jolly

Recently I spent a couple of days teaching. This wasn't my usual Oxford teaching job. But it involved the same kind of approach - reading students work in advance and then meeting with them to talk it through. As I reached the end of the second day, I was tired and hot, looking forward to heading home.

But I was also interested to meet my last student because her work very much impressed me. It was odd, interesting, challenging - and very well written. Our conversation turned out to be as interesting as the work had suggested. This young woman was clever, quirky with an independent mind. I liked her.

But then, as our conversation came to an end, she asked that inevitable question. 'Will I get this work published?' Usually when I am asked this question, I say something vaguely encouraging but imprecise. Partly I do that because I'm not teaching publishing, I'm teaching writing.

I also do it because I now genuinely can't answer that question. I might once have been able to give a view worth hearing but not now. Through my Oxford work, I see some talented and determined students come and go. Some of these students don't get published not because their work isn't good enough but because it is too good.

This young woman sitting opposite me would probably, I felt, also fit into that category. But how could I say that to her? I started to fend her off with a bit of waffle but then decided she deserved something better. And so I told her the truth. 'No, you're too good, you're too original, your work doesn't fit into any recognisable category.'

Or course, I said it more diplomatically than that but still this young woman, perhaps understandably, looked very upset. I inwardly cursed myself and wished I had stuck to the usual waffle. I just wanted to get home. 'Plenty of people are in this situation,' I told her. 'Maybe you could look at other ways of publishing your work?'

Her response was immediate. 'Oh no. I would never do that.'

'Why not?' I asked. At this point she could have said that independent publishing is too much work, that the book would not get adequate distribution etc. I might not have agreed with these arguments but I would not have considered them to have no value.

Instead she said, 'I want an editor at Bloomsbury - or somewhere similar - to love my work because I need that recognition. I won't be able to take my work seriously if it isn't properly published.'

Oh God, I thought, why did I get into this? I felt my respect for this young woman plummet. I was too hot and tired. Why couldn't she trust her own judgement of her work?

But then I got myself a glass of water, opened a window, took some deep breaths and thought again. After all, she was being honest. And part of the reason why I had bristled at her response was because some part of me was only too able to see her point.

We talked some more and finished up on good terms. She's going to keep in touch with me and let me know how things go. I'll genuinely be interested to hear. My assessment of her future prospects could easily be proved entirely wrong. Let's hope so.

Anyway, that should have been the end of it. Except that our conversation has stuck in my mind. I keep thinking back to something which Boyd Tonkin said in the Independent in 2012. He was commenting on Tan Twan Eng's novel 'The Garden of Evening Mists' which was on the Man Booker shortlist.

'That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today.'


I am sure that hundreds of writers, reading that, raised a cheer. And since that time his words have proved more and more true. The short lists of prizes are now very often dominated by books produced by small publishers who took them on after they were rejected by all the bigger players.

Perhaps the most obvious example is 'A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing' by brilliant Irish writer Eimear McBride. It took her ten years to get her book published but the book then went on to win major awards.


So what does this tell us? Only what we already knew - that editors in publishing houses don't necessarily know a good book when they see it. So if we know that, then why do so many of us, like my student, still want recognition from a person whose opinion they don't respect?

I don't know. But there is some part of me that wants that too. Editor at Bloomsbury, please, please love my book. Even though I don't trust your judgement.

Why? I suspect that we'd need a good shrink to tell us. It's like that girl at school that you really, really wanted to like you even though, deep down, you knew she was horrible. I myself - and I'm sure I am not alone - have never quite finished with pleasing the prefect, the headmistress, the boss.

I think of an old friend of mine who is a brilliantly clever man and a excellent writer. But he is also very uncompromising. He made a decision early in his career that he would make no concessions to the demands of the publishing industry. Consequently he has published few books and no-one has heard of him.

Given his history, the decisions he has made and his lack of regret about their their consequences, I expected him to have little sympathy for me when my second novel sank without trace. But he was surprisingly kind. 'The truth is,' he said, 'that people can die for lack of praise.'

I had never expected him, of all people, to say that and it shocked me. I still don't want to acknowledge that his words are probably true. But even if he is right, then the question still persists - whose praise? And how much of it?

12 comments:

Sandra Horn said...

Thank you, Alice - you have really touched a chord. I have hated myself for how I've behaved in the past in meetings with some editors - I've smiled and crept around like a toadie and let myself be talked into things I DID NOT WANT, by people I could not respect! However, in amongst all that there were one or two bright stars of editors. I still send things out sometimes in the (decreasing) hope that I'll come across another Fiona Kenshole or Isabel Boissier or Beverley Birch - all lost to UK publishing now. I have a horrible feeling that if I ever did get a positive response from one of the 'big' houses, I'd be grinning insanely and telling everyone, damn it.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Interesting. And true. I've been there, done that, and now I wonder what on earth was wrong with me! There was a culture of humble supplication and it's still going strong in some quarters. I remember kicking against it even before there were alternatives. Thinking 'why does it have to be like this?' Even trying to ask some publishers why it had to be like this - and receiving the kind of response that a millworker challenging the supremacy of the owners might have received in Victorian Britain! I do think the ability to self publish and distribute via Amazon and other platforms, has changed the game and is still changing it. That, plus the advent of excellent small independent publishers willing to take a few risks, and not wholly hidebound by the demands of the buyers for the big chains - classic case of the tail wagging the whole dog - has made a difference. But the sad fact is that nowadays, the 'editors' people are hoping to please - especially in Big Publishing - may well be recent graduates with undergraduate creative writing degrees working for peanuts or as unpaid interns and with little to no experience of what makes a good book and what people really want to read. Until and unless writers become more businesslike - stop wanting them to like us, start wanting them to partner us - I don't think it's going to change. And I'm sad to say that many (perhaps most?) university creative writing courses do almost nothing to promote the idea that although writing may be a vocation, publishing that writing is a business. Probably because most of those teaching are not, in any sense entrepreneurs.

Chris Longmuir said...

There is a lot of truth and a lot to think about in this article, and from my perspective the main thing of value coming to the writer from acceptance by the publishing oligarchs, is validation. And let's admit it, we all want to be validated. The sad thing is that in order to be accepted by most of the media, eg newspapers, magazines, etc, writers' conferences and conventions, and even other more traditionally published authors, that validation is required. Indie writers are still working at having their work recognised in the same way that indie music and films are. Indie music and films do not seem to have the same need for validation in order to be accepted. The good thing is that readers do accept indies, they don't look on the bookshelves of a store, virtual or otherwise, for a book published by a specific publisher, they look for the author's name. The publisher does not have the same sway with them that it does in other areas of the bookselling world. And I agree with you, Catherine, the business aspect is very important and as such should be taught on creative writing course, However, I would imagine the problem is that the tutors of these courses are those to whom validation is the most important aspect of publishing, where business acumen is probably a disadvantage (for acceptance by a publisher) than an advantage.

Andrew Crofts said...

I wonder if perhaps it is inevitable that big corporate publishers will become "vulgar" as Mr Tonkin puts it, because they are driven by business people who need to sell to the largest possible audiences. Difficult, experimental writing has always been a minority taste. I guess there are editors who don't just want to churn out genre books and they are the people who go off and found the independents. In time I suppose those independents will be bought by the big boys and other new ones will spring up in their place. Many publishers like Bloomsbury were once those exciting new companies themselves and their founding myths still live on, even though they are now as big and corporate as the rest.
Expecting the big corporates to publish fine writing is a bit like expecting McDonalds to serve up fresh canapes.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Alice. Strange, isn't it, how that need to be acknowledged by 'them' persists? And what a world we're in if works are 'too good to be published'.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

You're right, Andrew, but it isn't just fine writing or literary writing or whatever. It's that whole mid-list thing that has been squeezed out by the big boys and has largely decamped to either self publishing or the small independents.That's why you get those sudden and 'unexpected' best-sellers, popular novels emerging from micro publishers. I remember a time when they were quite proudly proclaiming the 'death of the mid-list' as though this were something to be celebrated! It ignored a whole tranche of readers - and those readers, as Chris says, don't care who publishes a book. I'm convinced it's one of the reasons for the hatred of Amazon in some quarters - the refusal to corral indies and micro publishers in some separate part of the site, where readers can't see them! Chris, I'm sure you're right about the lack of business acumen among many CW tutors. And with departments strapped for cash, they don't seem to even bring in outsiders to redress the balance.

Kathleen Jones said...

Oh, Alice - this reverberated on so many levels - personal anguish, the devastation and discouragement on the faces of my students, friends whose lives have been blighted by rejections they didn't deserve. We've been brainwashed into believing that commercial publishing was the only kind of artistic validation worth having. And the legacy of that is a lot of tawdry prose for readers and a lot of grief for authors.
Thanks for helping to expose it.

Lydia Bennet said...

However, despite the ghastly celeb-books the big publishers throw their cash at, while scorning the 'poor quality' indie and self-pubbed, there are some very quirky and brilliantly written books that do make it big. We do all need validation and frankly, I encounter quite a few writers who are happy with their own validation which is in some cases misplaced... it does help to have some from readers, publishers, broadcasters,directors, producers, listeners, etc, especially for those of us who don't trust our own praise or would be very negative about our own work without it. Honestly though, there may be some big successes for small press publishers, but often, books they publish get little distribution or notice by the establishment, and unless one of those strange word of mouth, bit of luck as well as talent things happens, they will probably never be discovered by most of the readers who'd have loved them.

Debbie Bennett said...

Oh yes. I can so empathise with this. There's a certain large group of people - parents included - for whom a book will never have been published unless it is "properly" published and therefore will never acknowledge me as a serious writer. Despite the fact that I have probably made more money doing it myself than I would have made with a no/minimum advance, tie-up-your-rights-forever contract with the big guys!

Dennis Hamley said...

Alice, this is a very thought-provoking post and everything in my writing life attests to its truth. Yes, I've had very similar conversations with Oxford diploma students, both when I taught them and now with those I still mentor. I try to tell them the real situation - but also say that it's their right to try for the glittering prizes. After all, it might work and the risk of having their hearts broken by the myopia and unprofessionalism of so many present day agents and publishers must be accepted. I'm not trying to sound like a grumpy old man, though I am one, when I bewail the disappearance of the integrity, critical acumen and wisdom of most publishers in the 70s when I first got going. Catherine, I know that creative tutors aren't necessarily entrepeneurs but most of us do - or should - know the score. And some of us are trying to give more formal outlets for good work. Blank Page Press will soon be here!

Nicky said...


I think we all need validation by people we respect professionally. It is never enough that our families love our work. I think that's why approval from our peers, whose credibility is not in question and whose critical faculties are not blunted by affection, is so important and why encouraging each other matters.

Alice said...

So many wonderful and interesting thoughts here. I just feel ashamed that it has taken me days to find a moment to read them properly. I particularly like the idea that there are people out there who don't need external validation because they are convinced of the value of their own work - but actually really shouldn't be. I hadn't really thought of that before although, of course, it is spot on. I have to say that for me writing is never going to be a business. However, I do like the idea of 'partnership' and I do accept that if, as in any other area of life, you really don't know what you are doing, then you will simply be taken advantage of. Uuuum. I don't know. It's complicated. For years I've gone around saying, 'I just feel that if you work hard and you are sincere about what you do and if your books are good - then one day you will be noticed.' But increasingly I think that is sentimental rubbish. So in the autumn I am going in for networking. I might even enjoy it. Been stuck in the country and buried in small kind stuff for too long. Am going to lose weight and buy a new dress. Go out ..... At least until I remember that I am fundamentally anti social.