How far will I compromise for that deal?
But only four days later, it was all off - the sales dept had told the editor my project wasn't commercial enough, so the meeting was cancelled. She did invite me to contact her though, to discuss it if I wanted to. I hesitated. At first I said no, then I emailed her. What made me hesitate? Probably the strong suspicion that a chat would be about what I should change to make my book more commercial.
In Lila Azam Zanganeh's excellent The Enchanter, she quotes Vladimir Nabokov: "(Nabokov) cautiously advised that the moment an author sets off to write, 'the monster of grim commonsense' will 'lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never never - And right then, just before it blurts out the word s, e, double-l, false commonsense must be shot dead.'"
Yes, my instinct was the same - commercial be damned! Shoot it dead!
Then I thought, hmmmm - how flexible am I prepared to be? Would it hurt me or my book very much? I couldn't - or wouldn't - be flexible with my last book, Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships. It had a very specific argument, and nine very specific women writers who fitted that argument. One agent had suggested changes - my book argues that the women in these literary relationships put up with bad behaviour for the sake of their art, that these relationships may have damaged them personally but benefited their work. She thought a book about women writers whose relationships with male writers had destroyed their careers would be better. I disagreed - that kind of thing had been done. This was a new feminist argument. I felt sure I was right and wouldn't budge. I got my reward eighteen months later, when Overlook Press signed me up.
But do I feel the same way about Rebel Muses? I thought about it and realised, yes, I am prepared to change things, within reason. But I need to know first what this publisher means by 'more commercial' and so, I've asked the editor to explain. Higher profile female muses? More populist artists? A stronger, perhaps more political, sense of rebellion?
What exactly does commercial mean?
Yesterday, I filed a review of Liza Klaussmann's debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, for The Scotsman. That issue was at the forefront of my review. This is a beautifully written debut, clear and dispassionate yet deliciously gossipy, too; a real treat. For the most part. And then there's a big problem. Because there's a dead body found right in the middle of it all (I'm not giving anything away, and don't worry, there are no spoilers here or in my review). And it didn't feel quite right to me. As the novel went on, it felt less and less right.
As a reviewer, if something jars with me, I think very carefully about why. And on this occasion, it seemed to me that this event jarred because it was too sensational, too - dare I say it? - commercial. Populist. Sellable. Whatever.
Would I have thought that if I hadn't just had my own experience with the 'commercial' impetus? When writers get bad reviews, there's a general 'oh, they're just jealous they're not authors too' attitude towards the critic. But most critics these days are authors as well. There's much more likely to be an overlap between author and critic, than there is to be a huge and unbridgeable gap.
I know that dead body would still have jarred with me, had I been a published author or not. Would I have reached the same conclusion, that it felt like a commercial attitude rather than an artistic one? I like to think so. But there's no doubt my own experiences as an author are impacting on my reviewing. For the better, I hope: I hope they mean I'm more informed.