What rough beast?
Thoughts on publishing, both academic and literary
My first academic books (one sole-authored, one co-authored) were published in 2012. Since then I have published three more academic books (four, if you count the second edition of my textbook) and one trade non-fiction book. My experiences with the publishers of these books were excellent. The publishers were timely in deciding whether they wanted to publish or not, polite in their feedback, and uniformly professional in their dealings with me.
Please note, I’m not saying that there aren’t problems with academic publishing. Indeed, the perverse incentives of “publish or perish” have caused academic publishing to grow in some very strange ways; but the publishers themselves are both pleasant to deal with and professional.
In 2015, I entered my first novel into an unpublished manuscript competition. My work did not win, but in 2016, it was commended (a status below “runner-up”). In the wake of this, a publisher approached me, and then, after taking a month or so to review the manuscript, politely said that they did not want to publish my novel. This was very much like the experience I had had with academic publishers.
I was emboldened by my “commended” status and the interest of this publisher to approach agents and other publishers with my manuscript. I was not prepared for what followed. Timeliness and politeness? Forget it. One’s manuscript could stay with a publisher or agent for months or years before they replied, and the replies, if they came at all, were terse. It was so different to my experience of academic publishing that it was difficult to know what to do. Should I approach someone else, when the first person wasn’t bothering to respond?
I followed some Australian agents and publishers on Twitter, hoping to get a clue. And then—after four weeks—I unfollowed most of them. It may have been coincidence, or a quirk of the particular people whom I chose to follow, but I noticed that if one person tweeted a particular view, within a few hours, the rest seemed to follow suit, agreeing in their own words. I wondered if I was imagining this, or, if I wanted my writing to be accepted, did I have to march in lockstep in the same way? I felt I’d somehow stepped into The Midwich Cuckoos, the scent of new-mown hay in my nostrils.
An agent eventually responded to one of my emails, saying I would have to totally rewrite the novel before they would consider it. Delighted to finally get some feedback, I spent the next month rewriting the novel in the way that they had asked, and returned it for consideration. I did not hear back for six months. Eventually, the agent replied briefly that they were not interested.
Rejection wasn’t (and isn’t) the problem here. I’m an academic—I’m used to rejection, harsh criticism, and biting peer review—and I’m quite prepared to admit that maybe my work just wasn’t good enough. It was the dilatory and unprofessional response which made my hackles rise.
A novelist friend was outraged when I told her of this experience, and introduced me to a publisher. My first novel was published in 2019. My friend warned me, however, that publishers of novels had always behaved like this, even to famous authors, and that I should not feel slighted.
I now realise that the contrast between my experiences with publishers depend upon whether there is a scarcity of a particular kind of work, or a glut of it. There is a glut of fiction (as well as other kinds of creative works) and there was absolutely no reason for any of these agents or publishers to take any notice of me. I am not a celebrity, nor the child of a celebrity; I am not notorious (yet?); I am not a politician; and I did not write a story about my minority status, or the ways in which I have suffered.
Conversely, for the purposes of academic publishing, I am a strange creature who wants to write treatises and textbooks about private law, despite the incentives not to do so. Added to this, I have been told I have a reputation for clarity on complex topics, and thus I am treated like a pearl of infinite price.
Before dipping my toe in the world of literary publishing, I had thought (naively) that the quality of my writing would stand alone, and that my personal characteristics were irrelevant, simply because none of the academic publishers had ever cared.
Now I wonder, given the tenor of the Twitter accounts I followed and then unfollowed, whether my situation might be different if I had chosen to give more detail about my identity, and written fiction about those aspects of my life instead. If I were desperate for my fiction to be published, could I have leveraged the fact that I am disabled, or that I have Indigenous ancestry? Or I could have exposed various other disadvantages I have suffered, in order to get a foot in the door?
Alas, I didn’t want to write on those topics. Other authors are, of course, welcome to write fiction around their identity and hardships associated with it—I’m not criticising them—but it’s not my personal preference.
In light of my own experience, I understand why Freddie DeBoer talks of the rage of the creative underclass, but the fact I have a day job means that I do not fall into this category. I can choose what to write about and how I say it.
I have no desire for my fiction to be published simply because a publisher wants to show that they give a space for disadvantaged voices to speak. I have had cerebral palsy since birth, and spent my childhood being picked last for school sporting teams. I can’t catch a cold, let alone a ball, despite my parents’ concerted efforts to help me develop more coordination. I tended to drift off into the world of my imagination, anyway, during team sports.
Sometimes, however, a teacher would make a team leader select me. It was humiliating. I knew well that no one really wanted me—and that the only reason I was there was because the teacher took pity on me. Perhaps I am an odd, proud person, but I would rather have been chosen last than given a place out of pity.
Despite what I have related above, my life is not terrible. It’s amazing. Modern medicine has enabled me to walk properly, and I have been able to have a rich and fulfilling career, a marriage, and a family. I am filled with gratitude towards my parents, my husband, and my treating doctors and medical professionals.
There’s a happy coda to the sporting story, too. In my twenties, after I’d had an operation on my legs to release my Achilles’ tendons, I was a member of a women’s soccer team for two years. They genuinely wanted me on the team, despite my lack of coordination, and what a difference it made! I can’t run any more, these days, but I’m glad I got a chance to be on their team when I could.
I now wonder, after hearing about the Bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s books, whether I am better off without a publisher for my second novel.
I will publish the first chapter of my second novel following this post.
My novelist friend likes to say, “I am the author. I’ll choose my words, thank you.” Of course, authors are edited prior to publication, but we are given a choice as to whether to accept the edits or not. I am lucky: my editors have been uniformly excellent, and I dip my lid to them.
A good editor is like a make-up artist and stylist who makes sure that you present to your best advantage. You might have looked a little dowdy before, or had a few hanging threads on the hem of your skirt: she cuts off the hanging threads, and spruces you up (my editors have always been female).
Editing someone’s book without their consent after they have been published (or worse, after they are dead!) means that the author no longer gets to choose their words. Frankly, it feels like the first steps into the world of George Orwell’s 1984:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.
It seems publishers of Dahl’s books don’t like what the past reflects, nor can Dahl be allowed to have chosen his own words: his words must be rewritten so that they are acceptable. This is extremely worrying. If publishers of fiction continue doing this, they will erode trust. I’d prefer to publish my own fiction, thanks. It might be not polished, it might not get the best exposure, but my words are my words. If my words are at risk of being judged according to a moral code which does not yet exist, so be it.
It is a pity to see the publishing industry come to this, because at its best, literature has a way of seeing to the heart of the matter. For several months, Yeats’ The Second Coming has been echoing in my mind:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty years of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What rough beast, indeed? I fear its blank and pitiless gaze is upon us.