Bear with me; I’m in a mood of deep frustration today. You may remember, an awfully long time ago now, I found an agent and started working on a book on motherhood. Well I suspected this was going to be the same kind of teeth-gritting process as moving house, when you have to find a property that you are deeply in love with in order to justify the enormous expense, but then the combined efforts of estate agents, solicitors, banks and other buyers to put obstacles in your way is enough to make you wonder repeatedly why you ever thought it was worth bothering. Guess what: I was right. So the story so far, is that back in March I submitted a proposal that the agent liked and so I wrote a couple of sample chapters. These received a mixed review as the agent thought the book was looking too diverse, too unfocused. Thinking about it, I considered that this was an astute assessment and that a tighter structure would be altogether better. So I wrote a different proposal that was all wrong, never mind, and then another one that finally hit the spot.
The agent loved it, I was very happy with it and it was a lovely proposal all about women artists who’d had children and the trials and triumphs they’d been through in the battle to combine domesticity and creativity. And so I started to settle down to writing another sample chapter, all contentment, when the bottom dropped out of the financial sector. I had a nasty feeling about that. Of all the panic-obsessed industries on the planet, publishing is probably the most profoundly and capriciously panicky. My agent happened at that point to be showing my proposal around her other colleagues to see whether they had anything germane to say. And of course, yesterday we had a long phone call in which she explained to me that given the current climate and the forthcoming recession, I was going to have to rethink the proposal to give it more mass-market appeal. It looked too much like it might be ‘academic’ and now needed a broader base. It was back to the drawing board. Naturally on the phone I was my usual work self, which is to say calm, intellect to the fore, emotions well out of the way, and persistent to the point of being faintly pathological. My agent’s phone died halfway through the conversation (she’s off to Frankfurt tomorrow for the book fair and emanated that air of last-minute chaos) and by the time we resumed our conversation I had some thoughts to offer her about where I might go next that pleased her. But by this morning, because it takes a while I find for my emotions to filter through, I must admit to feeling a bit fed up and rather jaded on the topic of motherhood.
It’s not my agent’s fault. I like her very much and she’s only doing her best for me. Neither of us can help the way that the publishing world is. I think that the point of collision between artistic people and accountants must be a very volatile and alarmist place to be. And recessions bring out the piggy part of human nature, the part that is stubborn and selfish and intent only on rootling around for sufficient food. It’s a part of humanity that has formidable tenacity, and we wouldn’t have survived without it, but it is not compatible with most creativity. Publishers for the immediate future will be looking for sure-fire winners, which means something that’s been done before. We’ll be inundated with The Dangerous Book for Aunts and The Dangerous Book for Postmen, and everyone will be looking for the next Dan Brown. There’ll be an awful lot of children’s books featuring wizards, even though you or I could tell them that this is an awful idea. I remember back when I was working in the bookshop, the manager was haunted by his failure to stock sufficient copies of a runaway bestseller biography of Princess Diana. Being something of a book snob, he hadn’t wanted it himself and so only had two copies in store as the crowds outside were beating down the doors. And so, when the next big royal book came out, we couldn’t move behind the tills for boxes of copies, stacked three deep. Inevitably, the reading public felt they already had one book on Diana and were not in sore need of another, and so eventually all the books were returned to the warehouse to be pulped. Despite the disasters of the past, what will sell books right now is a snappy, crowd-pleasing concept, although readers know that concept-driven books are often disappointing (and see Couchtrip’s wonderful post on Nick Horby for an excellent example of this). Alas, the concept that’s going to be attached to me is that of ‘academic’, and what qualifies me to write non-fiction is the same thing that will send publishers running. They only know academia as something that insists on publishing books that don’t sell even in a healthy economic climate. I feel like saying, but I promise I won’t write it like an academic, I’ll write it like a blogger! But unless I can get the concept onto the desk of an editor, I won’t write it at all.
It was altogether a funny afternoon, as the first phone call I had was from the school nurse about my son. This is never a lovely moment in the life of a mother. It turned out he’d been thwacked on the head with a hockey stick. It hadn’t even happened in the thick of a game, as he was weaving his way towards the goalmouth with the possibility of an open shot. No, they’d been walking to the playing fields when his friend had decided to demonstrate his golf swing and my son, in his own words, ‘was a bit too close.’ Apparently he hadn’t felt anything much, and I should say that we have always considered his skull to be impressively granite-like which I hope is indeed the case, but then his friends started to recoil in horror at the egg appearing on his forehead and he was sent to sick bay for an ice pack. I offered to pick him up in the car rather than make him get the bus, but no, stoic type that he is he said he was fine, and was busy refusing the nurse’s offers of ibuprofen.
When he arrived back home, I’d had half my conversation with the agent, and was on the interval. He wasn’t too bad, was in that funny, faintly exhilarated state that comes from having Something Perilous Happen that you have nevertheless survived. But he was inclined to stick closer to me than he usually is nowadays, and he brought his homework to the kitchen table to join me, where he burrowed through the extraordinary mass of nameless stuff that accumulates there daily, forming his own mini-rampart as we all must do if we seek a space to work in, and then gradually talked himself out of doing his geography assignment and into doing it during break the next morning. I figured this act of sophistry was probably good news. Something in there was functioning still. I then had part two of my phone conversation and it was all a very odd sandwich of events. But not unusual in terms of motherhood at all. It seems my entire maternal life has passed in a state of bi-location, covertly checking my son’s pupils to make sure one is not bigger than the other (a sure sign of concussion) whilst maintaining a façade of complete reassurance that he is fine, holding him close to me in intangible ways whilst trying to give him every freedom to be on his own. It’s not particularly special – all mothers do this, and yet it’s an extraordinary thing, to inhabit a contradiction that way. And I think I would still like to write about it, if I could. My plan is to rework two proposals; the first I wrote to make it more focused, the most recent one I wrote to make it broader in its scope. And then that’s as far as I can go. I can’t dumb down any further and if neither is marketable I’ll just have to sit the recession out. ‘It’ll only be a couple of years,’ said my husband, in an effort to be encouraging.
On a different topic entirely, the latest pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group is up here. If you’re a member already, do come along and cast a vote. If you’d like to be a member, let me know in the comments here or at the blog. We’re keen to have new people join and Slaves is such fun because we discuss at Metaxu Café as well as post on the books (and you can do one or the other if you prefer) and you get to hang out with fabulous book bloggers. What’s not to like?