A Bit of a Grumble

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?

22 thoughts on “A Bit of a Grumble

  1. What a disappointment! In times of financial crisis we need good books for comfort. When I read this I wondered about a book within a book, namely a novel about a mother / academic writing a book about motherhood and the hassles of trying to get it published. Because the back-story to this book is quite noteworthy in its own right. That way you get to provide gems from the motherhood book while catering for readers who want a bit of “narrative arc” to ease their reading. Not that your chapters don’t have excellent story-telling elements in them though. But I know you’d be terrified of writing a novel so I won’t seriously suggest it.

  2. What about “The Dangerous Book for Grad Students”? That would probably be worth a look- see.😉 I am sorry to hear that you may have to somehow (perhaps) bump Princess Di into your book to make it more palatable to the publishing powers. It seems like you have as good a plan as any and I can only hope some far-sighted editor’s eyes happens to pass across it.

  3. Oh, and I am happy to see that your son is ok! Did you know a similar incident happened to Prince William at Eton? Although I think it was worse, blood gushed everywhere (something like that) and he had a body guard who *insisted* on taking him to the hospital, thereby saving his life.

    Why do I know this? Credit goes to a lovely new roommate who no doubt owns every Princess Di book in existence and a few that haven’t been published yet. Thanks to that and her subscription “Majesty”, which I can’t resist flipping through, I am quite up-to-date on which country their majesties are shaking hands and petting children.

  4. Litlove, that must be very frustrating. “Selling” books is sometimes much more fraught with mishap than sitting down and “writing” the book. Still, will you really have to shelve your project if you cannot get an editor to go along? At least keep working slowly, in the hopes that the market will pull itself up by its bootstraps in time for your marvelous tome to hit the bookshops. From what I’ve gathered about your project I suspect it will have a vast readership – bright, intelligent readers who are looking for something slightly less academic but not at all mass market. Aren’t we all tired of mass market yet?

    Am also very glad your son is okay, glad he has someone like you to verify pupil size on the sly.

  5. How frustrating for you, Litlove. You must be starting to feel not unlike a performing seal, jumping through publishing’s hoops. I really hope it pans out and between you you find a synopsis that is the book you want to write as well as the book she wants to sell.

    Glad to hear your boy is okay. We had a concussed child earlier this year and she needed to spend a night a hospital under observation. All was fine, but it’s never fun to see one’s child pale and wan in a hospital bed.

  6. So sorry to hear about the publishing business and your son’s accident. Nightmares both. Hope all okay on the family front, and okay soon on the other. Hugs and stuff

    :((

    Axxxxxxx

  7. Pete – nice idea! I’ve toyed with the possibility of talking about my own experiences of motherhood and they’ve been in and out of proposals. It’s certainly something I’ll be considering again as it is a good way to add accessibility. And you’re quite right, fiction scares me!🙂 imani – hey! how good is it to see you? I’ve been wondering where you’ve been and I’m so pleased to see you visiting. And you always make me laugh. I should have spent my time in the bookstore reading those royalty books, and then I’d have more commercial material to write about!🙂 Actually, I can imagine the Dangerous Book for grad students selling rather well. I had no idea that Prince William had also been in similar peril – what classy company my son keeps in his accidents! lol! And oh the lure of cheap celebrity magazines (from which I am not immune). I can’t blame my agent for wanting me to write more like them. Verbivore – lol! I am very good at sneaky monitoring, although quite possibly my son would consider me hopelessly obvious🙂. It seems incredible to me that I’ve been working on this project for a year now and I still don’t have something to write. I have to say that’s never happened to me before, and all new experience is interesting in its way. Non-fiction sells on a concept plus a chapter or two, so there’s no point in writing more, but if I do decide to sit on the fence for a while I am sure I will find something to write while doing so! Charlotte – arf! arf! Yes. Quite. I really like my agent and feel she does have my best interests at heart, so if I can manage it with anyone it will be with her. But oh I am so so sorry to hear about your child. How ghastly. I’ve just been a bit worried about concussion, not at all the same as having to go through it. I’m very relieved to know that she was fine. Anne – I feel a bit unprofessional moaning in some ways because I know that everyone, oh but everyone who dares enter the commercial publishing world has the same problems and obstacles to contend with. I’m hardly alone. But just occasionally the tediousness of them rises up and must be let out. Children are good for putting it in perspective. If the afternoon had been full of literary success and taking a child to hospital, the literary part would have looked very irrelevant. And my blogging friends’ sympathy is very therapeutic, too. So hugs back to you.

  8. Oh pet. You could be forgiven for banging the handset (or your head) repeatedly against the nearest hard surface. Fortunate that you didn’t; multiple head injuries rarely make for coherent dinner plans. Very happy to hear that the Manchild is OK, though. And reasoning his way out of homework. That’s my boy.
    Look, we’ll all buy the book, in hardback, and demand that our local bookshops stock it, and tell our friends about it, and anyone unlucky enough to sit next to us on planes or stand still at traffic lights. It’ll be a surefire hit. Make the chapters short enough (for all the despairing, sleep-deprived mother-artists) and trust your own style. After all, you always tell us what excellent and discerning readers we are, don’t you? QED.
    PS I hope they do publish the Dangerous Book for Postmen. Between braving our savage hound and three tours to Afghanistan in four years, I reckon our postie Dave has earned a copy. Did you know that the Post Office issue rural postmen with special dog biscuits? Apparently he takes a bag with him to Kandahar, to snack on. Tastier than rations.

  9. Oh so sorry about the publishing woes. How frustrating! But as Fugitive Pieces said, we’ll all buy the book, that’s got to count for something! And glad your son is ok. He was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. Kids somehow have that ability. Maybe it’s because they have their parents to do all the worrying so they don;t have to?

  10. Wow, what an experience. For what it’s worth, I think your book IS needed by book-reading people everywhere, or at least me. I really loved the sample chapters you posted.

    (and your poor baby, getting whacked on the head with a hockey stick! Hope the goose egg mends itself as painlessly as possible.)

  11. Publishing is tedious and deserves huge moaning by everyone!!! I think we should start moaning far more loudly, to be honest, and then they might put that rocket up their bottoms and start acting like efficient professionals, ho ho!!

    :))

    Axxx

  12. Dear fugitive – Lol! That dangerous postman book is looking better by the minute. Perhaps I really should consider writing it?? You always have the best stories. And you are a sweetie, too, as you know. It would have been entertaining in its way to sport matching head wounds with my son, but then again, perhaps not🙂 Anonymous – as I said before, I’m happy to try fixing it if someone can tell me how. Or viewing in firefox is the simplest solution. BTW, I think putting one’s name to a comment is a good way to fix/screen any tendencies towards impoliteness. Stefanie – my son specialises in nonchalance! He’s been practicing his fixed expression for a while now and it’s coming on well. I do like your notion that it’s because he’s outsourced worry – very insigntful! and thank you for the kind words. Ian – aw, that’s nice. He’s nearly 14 now, so reaching the age where he likes to see me kept out of mischief, but he’s not too old yet to think I shouldn’t be permanently available ;)Boxofbooks – oh thank you for both those thoughts! The egg is going down now and turning a lovely shade of blue, and I still recall your comment on my chapters, which was one of those ones that really cheer a woman’s heart. Anne – I had never thought of it that way! Do you think that’s what we should do – have a publishing revolution? What a thought. I can’t remember how the writer’s strike ended in America, but the thought of mass creative uproar is an idea almost worthy of a novel itself!🙂 hugs to you.

  13. Sorry to hear about the frustrations with the book! Surely when the book comes out you can look back on this time and turn it into a good story! You have so much good material and such a wonderful ability to write, I’m sure it will work out one way or another.

  14. Can’t you just drop it for a while, while things settle down both in your head and on the financial market? Now is indeed not a good time to sell anything, from bonds to books. Maybe if the pressure to sell and please the editor is off, you’ll find new ways to tackle the issue and find a voice closer to your blog’s. Good luck! (and may I recommended Arnica on concussions?)

  15. I am so sorry about this, Litlove. If it’s any consolation (and I’m sure it’s not) I had exactly the opposite experience with a book proposal I was asked to write for a very academic publisher with a very prestigious language list who wasn’t happy because i wanted to discuss the tension between the individual narrative structures of the Harry Potter books and that of the overall story. Apparently ‘Harry Potter and the Zones of Turbulence’ wasn’t academic enough.

  16. I love your blog! Couldn’t find your email, but was wondering if you might be interested in reviewing books for me, or conducting author interviews or guest posts. If so, give me a shout! Thanks – I’ll be back to read some more:)

  17. Dorothy – what a good idea! Have you read The Year of Henry James by David Lodge? It’s a really interesting long essay (in a book of literary essays) in which he describes how awful it was to discover that Colm Toibin was also publishing a book on Henry James. It’s quite fascinating! And thank you so much for your kind words – much appreciated. Smithereens – oh it definitely is an option, and one which allows me to maybe do a writing course or at least practice more in the meantime, which is always a good thing. And thank you for the arnica tip – what a very good idea. Ann – isn’t it always the way? Always, there’s something: too long, not long enough, too smart, too accessible, not enough of this or that. My impression is that it is a pain for everyone who tries to publish, and solidarity and a lot of deep breathing is the only way forward! Tracee – Thank you so much! I must put my email back up on this site – it disappeared once when I added a different widget. This sounds a lot of fun – particularly interviewing authors! I’ll get back to you later in the day.

  18. You know, I almost bought The Year of Henry James the other day, but I figured I should probably read his Henry James novel first. But (as is often the way with me), the nonfiction sounds more intriguing …

  19. litlove– so why not release it serially on a blog, and let the publishers scent it out? Eoin Purcell has talked of several books picked up this way and put into print… besides, I’d love to read it. And wouldn’t the comments be an interesting way to shape the ms. from post to post?
    –op

  20. Dorothy – it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the novel, or at least I didn’t think it did (although to be honest, I HAD read the novel). David Lodge is one of those perpetually interesting writers. I didn’t get through all the subsequent chapters of literary criticism because they were a bit 19th century for me, but what I did read was extremely well done. I would love to know what you make of them, if you do pick up a copy.

    Openpalm – you know, I don’t know what I’d do without this blog to rehearse all my ideas in. So much of my written stuff has appeared here, one way or another! The blogs that make it into print tend to be personal experience ones, like the woman living in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan a while back, or La Petite Anglaise, as I think it was called, about an Englishwoman living in France. But I’ll continue to put all my ideas and favourite bits of reading down here and try them out on my loyal audience, and I am always extremely grateful for the feedback I receive!

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