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?