Sleeping With The Enemy

A couple of weeks ago I received in the post a manuscript sent to me by my publishers to assess for possible future publication. This is what happens in the academic world. Once you have your own work accepted by a publisher, they will often then send you related manuscripts to read on which they require an expert opinion. The thing is, it’s quite a responsibility, because the publishers rely heavily on reader’s reports. In this case there have already been two readers, one in favour of publication, one against, and I’m supposed to place the casting vote. Someone’s hopes are resting briefly in my hands.

So, as a person who knows just how it feels to send manuscripts and proposals away and wait with fingers crossed, trying not to count how long it’s been since you last contacted the publishers, moving onto the other side of the fence as a critical reader feels a bit like sleeping with the enemy. Only in the most figurative sense, you understand, because on the one hand, my publisher is an absolute sweetie, and could not possibly be categorised as enemy in any form, and on the other because he may well be fond of me, but…. Anyhow this is not a road I need to go down. Where was I? Ah yes, having someone else’s publishing hopes in my hands. Well the point of all this is that it is a truly eye-opening exercise, and I only wish that everyone who ever wanted to publish a book had first of all to decide whether or not a certain manuscript should make it onto the commercial market. Why is this? Because then authors would realise how much thought, effort and good will goes into a report that will, fifty percent of the time, make them furiously upset.

Now let’s be clear about this; I’ve been turned down enough in my time, and stamped my little foot and vowed never to let the cruel world lay its ignorant eyes on my writing ever again. And then after a couple of days, when I read the letter again, I always find it’s full of excellent advice and insight. That’s the thing about academics, I guess; their job is to criticise, and generally they do that very (obsessively, pedantically, and with a profusion of precise detail) well. It’s not like publishing fiction, where someone writes back, ‘no, thanks’. When a publication gets turned down, it’s for a good reason, usually either that it needs more work, or it will do better elsewhere, in a different format or with a different publisher. That’s ok; initially, it’s galling, but ultimately I’ll take the reality check for the reason that it’s useful. I suppose the thing about academics as a profession is that it’s fundamentally an assault course in criticism from the cradle up. I’m a bit sick, in that I actually quite like criticism (when it’s constructive) because after all, hasn’t that little nagging voice in the back of my mind known that there was something that didn’t quite fit, didn’t quite work? It’s a relief to have someone pinpoint it and take the doubt away.

I have to say that I was extremely lucky as a graduate student because I worked on my thesis with the most wonderful supervisor and fondly think of her as my academic mother. I would write a chapter until the point where I hated it, had lost my way, and couldn’t think what to do next. Then I’d package it up and send it to her without looking at it again. When we met, we’d go over my work together and the immense value of our relationship was that I always knew she had seen what I was trying to do. Out of the sludge of my ideas, she had the ability to identify the framework that held them together, and once we had pulled it out of the mud and set it upright I was always fired with enthusiasm and raring to get back to my desk to start sorting it all out. I always think that’s the most important quality in the supervisor for graduate work: not what they know, but whether they will help you to help yourself. She showed me how inspiring criticism could be, and how easy it was to be open to someone’s critical opinion; she taught me how to mark a real distinction between the kind of criticism that someone uses to make themselves feel smart, and the kind that only aims to help.

We’ve been watching a lot of American Idol lately (bear with me, this is relevant), and I notice that when people get knocked out they often say, ‘I remained true to myself.’ Or ‘Well, I just did my thing and I’m going to carry on doing it.’ Now this could simply be an Anglo-American English issue, but I have no idea what they mean by that. As far as I know, whenever we do something creative or performative we can only do our own thing. There isn’t another option. What matters is being able to do your own thing in a way that communicates to other people how extraordinary that vision is that you’ve been looking at. What marvels have entranced you to the extent that you wake in the night thinking of writing, or fail to notice the taste of food because your mind is so entangled in its serpentine coils of creativity. You see it, but can you tell it in such a way that other people see it? Now that’s the really difficult part. So when people criticize, they haven’t seen what you have, and that means going back and doing it again until they do. Doing your ‘own thing’ is only a form of home entertainment, unless it can reach out and touch other people.

This has taken me a long way from my manuscript to assess, but not really. My job is to say whether the author has made me excited and intrigued by her vision; if I’ve been convinced and persuaded by the case she makes, and if my own understanding has been shaken and broadened by being obliged to entertain someone else’s original perspective. I can’t think about how hard the author might of worked, or how much he or she may deserve it. Ultimately I would be doing them a disservice to reduce the process to such a dull, personal level, and there are far harsher critics than myself out there, if I allow a piece of work out into the open market that isn’t every bit as good as it should be. But, you know, it’s still not comfortable always to be the place the buck stops. I hope the author understands, whatever I put in my report, that I did my very best to hear their message.

11 thoughts on “Sleeping With The Enemy

  1. I think I understand: you’re Randy Jackson, but you have to go last instead of first. Randy’s always been in the privileged position of never having to cast what appears to be the deciding vote. He can equivocate all he wants without fear. If the case is borderline, Paula’s always there to cast the Yes vote, leaving Simon to toss the poor auditioner to perdition. Tell your publisher you’ve come down squarely in the middle on this one; it’s what he deserves for telling you how the first two votes were cast!

  2. Welcome to the world of the editor. Wonderful to get your perspective on the process. So often, I’ll get back a proposal that I’ve sent off for peer review, and to me, it will be a great review, one that definitely guarantees those on our editorial board will stand up and take notice. Then I’ll send it to the author, who will call me, and I can just tell he/she is having problems with the one negative comment (which I barely noticed, because it was so unimportant) that was in amongst the ten fantastic ones, as if the only thing the reviewer said was the one negative thing. You authors are extremely brave people to have to go through all that, and I can completely understand how you feel like you’re “sleeping with the enemy.”

  3. I bet it’s very interesting and educational to be on the other side — and I would feel the responsibility and importance of it too if I were in that situation. What it reminds me of is moving from being the one interviewed for a job to being one of the people doing the hiring; I’ve done both, and being on the hiring side is hugely illuminating. I don’t look at the whole process in quite the same light anymore.

  4. David – I am still creased up from your comment! Absolutely. I’ve never seen it so clearly before – I am indeed the Randy Jackson of the situation. I do shudder to think what the Americans think of the British when Simon Cowell is our representative… Emily – oh I know, one tiny little thing and the delicate creative ego is wounded! It must be very hard to be an editor and to have to deal with authors all the time – so much soothing and clucking to do! Dorothy – exactly! Once you’ve been on the other side, you do get a totally different perspective, don’t you?

  5. I’m not sure I could do either side of your job. If I wrote something I’m not sure if I wouldn’t be crushed if someone said it was awful–unless of course it was constructive criticism and not just trashed (as I have seen some reviewers do–but then I am thinking too of fiction–not academic writing). On the other hand I think I would feel awful if I had to tell someone that their work just wasn’t quite right. I suppose it is all in the delivery–some people just have a knack for being completely diplomatic and offering advice in a way that is not completely crushing. I envy you the ability to do both jobs well!

  6. I hesitated over posting this comment (for at least half a minute). I have seen Litlove react to criticism of her own work and what I sense is that you are very good at taking it when you can see the logic from which it springs. I do recall once when you Googled yourself in an idle moment, found a niggly review of your book, and were devastated. I recall, though, that what upset you in that review wasn’t that it was critical of what you had done, but that it was effectively asking the impossible- criticising you for not having written a book five times the length of the one you had been asked to write and which had a word limit. I guess criticism comes in two sorts: one kind you could never live up to, like that one (nobody could) and the other kind is productive, useful feedback that allows you to improve. And the latter is invaluable, whilst the former is inevitably just depressing.

  7. Danielle – taking the criticism is not easy, it’s true, but you feel so pleased when the piece is improved further down the line. Giving criticism can only be done when you remember how hard it is to take, I think, then it all comes out better. There are many days when I would dearly love to avoid both sides of the equation! Dear Kathryn – you are quite right! That was an awful ‘I’m going to give up and never look back’ moment. The review struck me as so unfair and there was no way I could stand up for myself and say ‘hey! you tell me how to cover Western Europe in 50,000 words!’ I also leant the invaluable lesson never, ever to google myself.

  8. Yo! Dawg! Picturing you as Randy Jackson is pretty funny. But if I were an author I think I would be very happy having you as my reader, giving my work such careful and thoughtful consideration. And as for Simon, I think he’s a hoot but have never once conisdered him a British representative.

  9. Oh, litlove, this is really excellent; there is so much to think about here. I also admire your humbleness and honesty. I’m sure you will make the right decision. The writer is lucky that you are the reader, I think, whatever the outcome.

  10. This is such an interesting and useful post — I also have been on both sides of this game and know exactly what you mean. And as for taking criticism — when I started writing academic essays for publication I had a friend who was an experienced academic writer/university professor. I would show him what I had written and he would often be quite critical. At first I found this incredibly hard and would get very upset and defensive. But in fact, though taking criticism is never totally easy, I did come to realise exactly what you are saying here — that there were issues I had fudged, or things that didn’t quite work, and that I was in fact really lucky to have someone to point them out to me.

  11. I am fascinated by your description of your advisor – the difference between that rare breed, the excellent university level teacher, and the norm. How wonderful that you had such a nurturing experience. No doubt it has helped to mould you into your fine writing of today.

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