On 5-star rejections and not giving up the day job

Last week I got home to this email from my agent. He'd forwarded it on to me from a very prestigious publisher, who only ever publish high quality fiction and non-fiction. I'd been unsure that my historical novel, The Ghost Continent, was quite right for them, as they don't really go for much historical fiction. But my heart lifted at the first couple of sentences, after the editor had apologised for taking so long to reply:

'I’ve now had a chance to read. I was really really impressed by it – there’s a learnedness and patience to the writing as well as some nice intertextual allusions and subversions.'

Wow, I thought - I've 'really impressed' them! I have 'intertextual allusions and subversions'! Hooray, hooray - oh. Because the next sentence read:

'But I’m afraid in the end it didn’t feel like a good fit with (our) list and I’m going to turn down this time.'

Not a 'good fit'? Impressive isn't a 'good fit', is that what they mean? All the things they liked weren't quite right for them? Another writer friend, J. David Simons (author of The Credit Draper and The Liberation of Celia Kahn) gave me his permission to post up this 5-star rejection he received from yet another very prestigious publisher of quality fiction and non-fiction, the response to his latest novel set in Japan:

'This is a very impressive book. An absolute pleasure to read. Whilst it is exceptionally written and certainly offers great promise, I do not feel that it will sit comfortably on our lists going forwards.' 

As David says, it all begs the question, what does 'sit comfortably' on this list 'going forward'?  Books that are not very impressive or an absolute pleasure to read and not exceptionally written?? He admits that all of it made him very angry at the time (although he has since found another publisher for his 'very impressive book', so there is hope).

I pored over both these comments for a long time, probably more time than is wise. Then I noticed what was missing in the fulsome praise - any mention of commercial appeal. I can't imagine a rejection, no matter how enthusiastic about the prose or the story, that says, 'This is a very impressive book with huge commercial potential. But I'm afraid it doesn't quite suit us at this time.' If anyone does possess a rejection like this, please do let me know! (A chat with a publisher last week about my novel made me smile - I said my novel was really asking, why wasn't Freud Scottish? He should have been! We were the innovators when it came to the new science of psychiatry, but we let it all slip away. That was my commercial pitch. He nodded wisely, and said, 'now imagine someone going into a bookshop and wanting to buy the book about the lack of a Scottish Freud'.)

In the midst of many, many articles about the current state of the publishing industry, what interests me most is not, where is all this going or where has it all come from - I can't do much about either. What I do want to know is, what do I as a writer do? 

I have several options: I go for self e-publishing (which I've ruled out as it means print media, arts council awards and literary prizes will all ignore me and I need them to see me); I approach a small publisher who may be more likely to say yes to me but will pay little or no advance and have very limited distribution but might be very enthusiastic and might get me some attention (this year's Booker longlist is full of small publishers, like the excellent Salt Publishing: http://www.saltpublishing.com).

Or I hold on to my impressive manuscript and wait for a more propitious time to try and bring it out. The problem is, I can't really afford to work for nothing, which is what I'd effectively be doing here. And this leads me on to the professional writer question. How do you make a living from literary fiction, if your literary fiction has limited commercial appeal? If you're having to put it in a drawer and wait?

We tend to forget that writers have always had day jobs - T S Eliot worked in a bank then a publishers; Wallace Stevens was a lawyer. Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Smart both worked as journalists. William Golding was a school teacher. Simone de Beauvoir and James Joyce taught as well. And it wasn't just until they hit the big-time: this interesting piece in Publisher's Weekly shows writers who carried on doing the 'ordinary' day job even after literary success: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2012/08/09/6-authors-who-never-quit-their-day-jobs/?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=d0b3bf7bd3-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email.

We tend to equate publishing success with 'giving up the day job' (some of us are lucky enough to have day jobs that are also connected with writing, like literary journalism, teaching creative writing, working in publishing, book-selling etc). This seems to me to be a hangover from the 80s, by and large, when literary fiction writers, mostly graduates from Malcolm Bradbury's innovative and groundbreaking Creative Writing program at the University of East Anglia which produced a whole host of writers who then went on to make the kind of deals, and win prizes, that shored them up for the rest of their lives, could make a living from their novels alone. Yes - a new professionalism emerged: the professionally qualified writer who could command a proper salary for his or her novels. And so Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes etc etc (not all creative writing graduates, I should point out), set the standard - they could generate sales, win prizes, get big advances. Our generation, looking for and even expecting the same, can only look back in anger.

And yet, what I also remember from the 80s, was the prevalence of articles lamenting 'the death of the novel'. We were never done banging on about it. It was the flipside of that 'proper salary' business. Because when you look at the books written by the authors mentioned above, you start to notice just how commercial many of them were. The very first Ian McEwan book I ever read was The Innocent, about a murderer. He quite liked grisly deaths, from what I remember. Amis was the cocky wide-boy with books that were journalistic in their timeliness, Rushdie had the touch of exoticism that heralded a whole new genre of lucrative post-colonial novels, and Ishiguro was the conservative outsider, holding up uncomfortable mirrors to the upper-class English and their ways.

Commercial doesn't equal subversive, and I wouldn't consider any of these writers subversive. Enjoyable, yes. Well-written. Even 'impressive'. But James Joyce wanted to turn the English language inside out and upside down with Finnegans Wake - that really was subversive. What was Ian McEwan's aim? What was he subverting?

I suspect that over the next few years we will see more truly 'subversive' novels published by smaller publishers who may not be around for the long haul (how can they be, on the amount of books they sell?), but may inject something interesting into the literary scene. It may be that in my reduced-income circumstances (literary journalism pays my bills, but books pay for anything extra), I will have the freedom to write the kind of books I want to write, even if it means I can't afford a holiday bigger than a weekend caravanning in Lossiemouth for the next ten years. I'm lucky that I don't want to give up the day job, I hope I will keep reviewing and writing for newspapers till I drop dead. But for those who do want a job change, perhaps it's time to be realistic, and target the market. Commerce begets commerce. Perhaps the real choice isn't, what do I do with my novel, but more - what kind of writer do I want to be, and what kind of writing life do I want to live? 


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