Across the coffee table from me sits a man who runs a small press. I notice his chair is higher than mine. The year is 1998 and we’ve met in his huge office to discuss publication of my first novel. He’s edited the opening lines to show me his editing style. The third sentence reads: ‘Cockroaches were indirectly to blame for my exile.’ He’s pencilled a forward slash through the adverb. ‘Cockroaches were to blame for my exile.’ It sounds more certain – and more absurd. Though he hasn’t said so, I’ve begun to suspect that the premise needs work. And his edit isn’t my only concern. He’s taped a loose, blonde strand of my hair to the first page. Just because I’ve written, in the context of addiction, about sexual fetishes doesn’t mean I want to see his. Luckily I haven’t yet signed the contract.
A few weeks later I face him in his office again, having shown the contract to a lawyer. This time I’m wearing my hair pulled back so as not to leave any stray strands behind. Steeling myself, I tell him which clauses he’d need to modify for me to sign, but no sooner have the words left my mouth than I sense from the pitiless gleam in his eyes that I’ve crossed a line by daring to challenge his fantasies of dominance. Maybe he thought I’d be as submissive as the narrator of my novel?
‘I offered you something that every writer dreams of,’ he says. ‘A fast track to publication.’ This isn’t strictly true. Most writers dream of an offer from a big publisher with a fat marketing budget; not an offer from a failed writer who, though he’s amassed some capital, couldn’t do a structural edit to save his life. ‘I read it and contacted you within a week,’ he reproaches me. Though my chair is higher than his today, I cringe. ‘You’d been offered publication within a few weeks!’ he continues, as if he can’t fathom my ingratitude. ‘I want to do a rewrite,’ I say, as if it’s nothing personal. ‘Try the other publishers first,’ he says, as if he knows something I don’t. I think I’m getting an inkling after rejections from three top agents (though each was kind enough to offer contract advice), so my ego feels flayed as I walk away.
Soon after that, I pay for a manuscript appraisal. According to the anonymous assessor, ‘The characters appeared to be more like caricatures or types than real people, which is why they did not seem to develop in the course of the action.’ I could unpack the assumptions informing this analysis – i.e., that assessor’s beliefs about ‘real’ people – but you can’t argue with the market. And so the rewrites begin.
It isn’t really my first novel. I still shudder to think of how wilfully I defied submission guidelines: single-spaced type on double-sided pages to save paper (and trees), bound so no pages could escape, with quaint DIY cover art; a wordy first draft that elicited a raft of rejections. Let’s call it naivety. Why my parents would sanction my leaving school sans HSC is anyone’s guess, but according to my report cards, Art was what I did best. And art school rewarded difference – unlike the local literary industry.
A decade on from that manuscript appraisal, I pay for a consultation with a veteran of Oz publishing. Based on a preview of my CV, synopsis and Chapter One of a novel, this expert will tell me what steps to take next. After our morning session I stop at the bathroom en route to the exit and, feeling ripped off, as I sit on the loo, decide to peruse the notes she gave me. But the promising sheaf of A4 pages includes all her notes for the day, far more extensive for her other clients, who’ve made beginners’ mistakes. At least I’ve long since ceased to be a beginner. But my problem, as she’s hinted, is that I’ve failed to create a narrator to whom bourgeois readers might relate.
I came to ‘creative’ writing late, having grown up in a suburban void defined by my factory-worker father’s wage and the social constraints imposed by my housewife mother’s ‘agoraphobia’. I use quote marks not because diagnosing mental illness is a way to invalidate those who refuse to face ‘reality’ – though it is – but because my mother’s problems were emotional. Could reading the right sort of fiction (i.e., not Gone With the Wind or the pap in her magazines) have made a difference? Maybe not… Narcissism, ironically, tends to resist recognition of what it is, making treatment, let alone cure, difficult. And that this is the case with individuals only makes the prospect of healing it at the collective level seem daunting indeed, if not impossible. How do you persuade a global population to act responsibly unless it has the capacity to recognise when it’s wrong?
Which brings me to the issue of ‘what every writer dreams of’. It’s absurd to think all wordsmithery springs from a common impulse – as if Kafka and Dan Brown, or Plath and Pam Ayres, were on the same page. I’ve always wanted my writing to change lives; a few books have changed mine, but they’ve long since gone out of print. Because what publishers look for is difference within sameness – like a dairy yoghurt brand adding new flavours to its range. It takes entrepreneurial flair to market dairy-free yoghurt to vegans. But most dairy product suppliers – and publishers – choose to play safe. Though veganism is trending; and the flavour of the moment, identity politics, has helped. So, good luck getting published if you’re not LGBTQIA+, dispossessed, a migrant, a Muslim, overtly disabled, mentally ill, nor aligned with any other high-profile minority. Would I rather be pigeonholed than invisible? Hard to say when I haven’t yet found my market niche, but the risk is that finding it sort of defeats the purpose of trying to make a difference in the first place.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen two writer friends score two-book deals: one with a major publisher, the other with a small press (if not quite as small as the one run by the man in the huge office). By ‘writer friends’, I mean novelists who need feedback, some of whom treat friendships as a matter of expediency. At least, that describes my erstwhile Writer Friend #1, whose agent hooked a big publisher: a dream come true that looks like juggling interviews, talks, tweeting, blogging and teaching with writing variations on novel #1, the formulaic nature of which laid down the ground rules for all future output. Writer Friend #2, however, enjoyed a less successful debut. A small press means a small budget; and, when editors charge hourly rates, the rougher the draft, the higher the cost of knocking it into shape. But if a publisher takes shortcuts, the end product suffers. Trained in professional editing, I know how much help most writers need – and if problems with not just punctuation, spelling and grammar, but structure, style, voice, continuity, plausibility and logic aren’t sorted, years of work are wasted and that author’s brand is dead in the water. If Writer Friend #2 had asked, I would have said novel #2 wasn’t ready. And having winced my way through an advance review copy, I’ll just say that some things count more than deadlines.
Since turning down that offer in 1998, I’ve honed my craft enough to know that draft was too rough to submit to a legit publisher. I would have lived to regret doing a deal with the devil, whose very small press has predictably long since sunk without a trace.
A poignant story of integrity and discernment. I loved it, thank you.