Five Months till Publication – September

If you’ve ever made butter, you’ll recognize the feeling of churning the cream for hours and hours, seemingly getting nowhere, and then realizing all of a sudden that the grains of butterfat are beginning to form and find each other. It’s been a year since my book deal; now, all at once, we have a cover. A beautiful cover, that tells the story without giving it away. The first proofs are ready, and I’ve had my first quote. As The Life Of Brian’s Judith says when she crashes into the meeting of the Peoples’ Front of Judea, ‘Something’s happening, Reg. Something’s actually happening.’ It feels sudden. But of course, this something has been happening, not just during the year since I signed my publishing contract, but for over a decade before that. The butter will come, and it might look something like this. Believe me, it’s worth it.
the ship no clouds
And so what I want to focus on this month is how every failure in those ten years has been a part of what is happening now, so much so that to call the rejections, the closed doors, the miseries and disappointments ‘failures’ is as inaccurate as saying that David Mitchell ‘failed’ to make the shortlist of the Booker Prize, or that Ali Smith has twice ‘failed’ to win it. Any reader knows that if winning the Man Booker is the benchmark of success, most of our greatest reading experiences have been written by failures. It’s harder, though, for an aspiring writer to see success in any terms other than publication. Writing costs. Pouring out your lifeblood, creating time to write where no time exists, fighting the inexorable press of your commitments and your paid work and your partner and children – oh it’s hard. And if publication is the only validation that will do, then you’re throwing paper money into the wind and hoping a stray current of air will bring it back in the form of spun gold, or digging up chunks of marble hoping one of them will be Michelangelo’s David. It does happen. A first novel is accepted by the first agent who sees it; it’s bought quickly and goes on to great success. But that is someone else’s story.
I can only tell the story of rejections. Of agents not currently accepting unsolicited submissions; of printed postcards saying, ‘No, thank you,’ without any reference to the work I’d sent. I’ve got rejections that say, ‘If only you’d submitted this five years ago, but fashions have changed.’ I’ve even got one that says the decision would have been different if I’d had a media profile, but they couldn’t see a way to promote me. I had an agent for a short time, a new and excited agent who was certain my novel (not The Ship, incidentally) would sell within three weeks and make both our fortunes. It took a lot longer than three weeks for that not to happen. I entered competitions and wasn’t even shortlisted. I was commissioned to write a short story for an edition of a magazine that took two years not to be produced. I’ve wept and I’ve raged as light after hopeful light has been blown out, regardless of how hard I was holding my own breath. And still I wrote.
Getting a publication deal requires a perfect storm. Currents in the industry; agents’ and editors’ personal taste; business budgets; literary fashion…these things need to be in place for your work to be accepted, and these things are out of your control. But every setback contains a seed that might one day bear fruit. A rejection with feedback shows the agent gave your work time, and thinks it has potential. That agent is more likely to read your next novel with intent. The editor of the magazine that doesn’t make it to publication will still remember your name. And fashions change. Every rejection is evidence of your engagement with your aspiration. Every failure is an indication of your perseverance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t weep and rage and rail against the rank injustice of the whole quixotic system. It does mean, though, that when rejections come, they should be seen for what they are.

The 2014 Man Booker Short List – a reader’s guide

The 2014 Man Booker short list, in case you don’t already know, goes like this:

Karen Joy Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Winner of the Not Published by Penguin Random House award; also: Best Use of a Review-Hampering Twist

[NOTE: the following title is not eligible for the Not Published by Penguin Random House award] Richard Flanagan Narrow Road to the Deep North. Best Historical Novel since A Town Like Alice.

[NOTE: the following title is not eligible for the Not Published by Penguin Random House award] Neel Mukherjee The Lives of Others. Best Indian novel since Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (see also last year’s shortlist). Also, Least Accurate Novelisation of a German Film

[NOTE: the following title is not eligible for the Not Published by Penguin Random House award] Howard Jacobson: J. Title that Makes the Greatest Concession to the Rise of Twitter

[NOTE: the following title is not eligible for the Not Published by Penguin Random House award] Joshua Ferris To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Special prize for novelistic reinterpretation of Little Shop of Horrors, faithful to all original features bar the man eating plant and a cappella backing group.

Ali Smith: How to be Both. Best surviving novel from the long list. Seriously. Which means it should win the Man Booker, even though, in common with five of the six shortlisted titles, it’s not eligible for the Not Published by Penguin Random House award. Yes?



Now, about this Man Booker short list

So tomorrow the Man Booker shortlist is announced. I’ve read every word of every novel on it (and am very grateful to the publicists and agents who let me have proof copies of the titles yet to be published). This year’s long list attracted a great deal of attention for its lack of diversity. But of course, as the website swiftly pointed out, the Man Booker prize is not obliged to represent writers from a range of backgrounds, or represent men and women equally – it exists solely to reward writing that is, in the opinion of the judges, the best of what’s been nominated. And one of those judges, Erica Wagner, wrote a persuasive piece in the Guardian Review asking readers to please just go and read the books. So I did.

This year, more than any other, I find myself desperate to know what was nominated. The long list is heavy on the angst of older men from privileged backgrounds who struggle to relate to women. Many of them are fine novels, but they carry a strange atmosphere of déjà vu – or rather, déjà lu. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Richard Power’s Orfeo, David Nicholl’s Us, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Whether through the drive of genius, the historical settings, or their own upbringing, these male protagonists struggle to form and maintain relationships, and suffer as a result. There’s much to admire. The cod-Anglo Saxon Kingsnorth created for The Wake is mesmeric, and Flanagan creates a compelling picture of the horror and hopelessness of the Japanese prisoner of war camps. The ending of The Dog will remain with me for a long time. But the material feels oddly familiar. The trope of the capable, intelligent and generous woman who makes every allowance for the special emotional needs of the man she loves, but is driven away through no fault of her own, feels manufactured, and ripples through half the longlist. In the same vein, more nuance among the women of Mukherjee’s privileged family would have given more resonance to the relation of the effects of the Communist risings in India upon their lives.

The judges aren’t the only ones with opinions, and allowances must be made for purely personal responses – the twist in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves didn’t work for me, although I loved the central character and the writing itself; a protagonist who refers to being in a relationship with a woman as being ‘cunt-gripped’ alienates me from the outset (sorry, Joshua). Howard Jacobson is a writer with a fearsome critical reputation and enviable pedigree (he’s the only former winner on the longlist), but I struggled to engage with J. Perhaps I need to move on from the interview in which Jacobson said that watching his wife laughing at another man’s writing is akin to witnessing her committing adultery. I’ll also admit (and to avoid spoilers, I won’t mention titles) to preferring a layered resolution over a simply happy or simply miserable one.

I was grateful for the anger and outrage of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and for the dangerous games of her flawed, raw heroine; I loved the unapologetic energy and strength of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. Both feature such fresh writing; vibrant and scintillating. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will satisfy all who love his other novels. His heroine lives and breathes, as does the whimsical heroine of Niall Williams’ History of the Rain, although I have some sympathy with readers who’ve found the faux-naïve responses of the young, seriously ill woman to the works of literature she devours on her sickbed grating; nevertheless, these two women stand out among the male-penned female characters of the long list.

What do we want from the Man Booker? Does the inclusion of Nicholls, Ferris, Williams and Fowler suggest a blurring of the popular/literary boundary? That would be good – after all, novels can be both – but if that’s the case, where’s Sarah Waters? She can’t be kept out of the major prizelists forever. And such omissions! Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is an explosive firework of a ride through Chinese cultural history. Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, Monique Roffey’s House of Ashes – wonderful novels that would have given the long list more passion and more breadth (feel free to leave a comment and add to this list). In the opinion of the judges is the only way to run such a prize, but readers have opinions too, and a prize that looks too far backwards will run the risk of becoming irrelevant. And for the record, my heart’s with Ali Smith; my money’s on David Mitchell, though, and if I lost it, I wouldn’t mind.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Ali Smith, How to be both

Niall Williams, History of the Rain

Richard Powers, Orfeo

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.