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Arcadia, then in its infancy, and went on to sell 30,000 copies and win the inaugural Waterstone’s Mardi Gras Award.’ In terms of profile and critical reception, Arditti is doing well, but Arcadia offered a tiny advance of ‘barely four figures’. Some small publishing houses offer no advance at all.
Novelist Maggie Gee chronicled her mid-career crisis recently with startling and laudable honesty in her memoir My Animal Life (Telegram Books). Her chapter entitled ‘The Literary Jungle’ should be required reading for anyone wanting to enter the game. In 1995, Gee was a highly-praised writer from the first ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ generation that included Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro. But when she submitted her sixth novel to HarperCollins, the editor there – who had inherited her from another editor, always a worrying development for any author – turned it down, even though it was the second book in a two-book contract. It went on to be turned down by almost every mainstream literary publisher in London. Like all good, tough writers, she sat down and wrote another novel, but that too ‘reran, the disaster movie of rejection’. To add insult to injury, the Big Famous Agent who was supposed to be minding her career duly gave her the push too.
Salvation for Gee came, as it is now doing for many others, in the form of a small independent. The book that had been rejected by HarperCollins, The White Family,
went on to be published by valiant Saqi Books and was shortlisted for the Orange and the IMPAC prizes. Gee was vindicated, and successful again, but has the frankness to admit, ‘it turned out to be my middle but it could have been my end’.
'Serious novels by women can triumph in the marketplace, and many authors who persist do come back from the wilderness'
How many authors in her position have been dropped completely? We may never know. An author may disappear for several years for many reasons – research, writer’s block, motherhood, illness – and it can be a decade before anyone starts to remark, ‘I wonder what happened to so-and-so’. The good news is that a pattern appears to be emerging of established literary authors being scooped up by independent publishers who punch above their weight in the marketplace. They may fear being ghettoised but, to be realistic for a moment, an author writing literary fiction is already in a ghetto as far as the market is concerned. The publicity given to the big prizes and a few literary bestsellers masks the ineluctable truth that the vast majority of novelists have never, and will never, make a living from their fiction alone.
Surviving the cull It’s a great mistake to confuse commercial publishing with the Arts Council or the Royal Literary Fund. A publisher’s remit is not the furthering of our literary heritage. (Poets and short story writers have no difficulty understanding this.) It’s also worth remembering that many unpublished authors would snap up the opportunity of being published by any of the small but respectable houses mentioned above, tiny advance notwithstanding.
Like many novelists, I subsidise my writing with teaching – in my case for the Faber Academy – and am fond of lecturing students about how they must write for the love of it, and regard any rewards, financial or otherwise, as extra. Perhaps we published authors need to remind ourselves what we tell the newbies: that writing a novel and trying to get it published is just ‘posh bingo’, as Julian Barnes once called the Man Booker Prize. Getting that phrase tattooed on our foreheads might be a good start.
A good follow-up would be to remember that the vast majority of novelists have always survived by having a wide portfolio of related activities that not only provide financial support but also keep their profiles high. In 2004, Maggie Gee became the first woman Chair of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. Amanda Craig is chief children’s book reviewer for the Times. Joan Smith is columnist and blogger. These writers, and many like them, are professionals who take responsibility for keeping their morale and their profiles intact – which, in turn, enables them to keep living (and writing) in hope of the one big piece of luck that can transform a literary career at any stage.
Somehow, amongst all the earning-aliving and keeping-up-a-profile (and let’s not get started on family commitments), we are also supposed to find time to write the damn books. But writing the damn books is why we got into the game in the first place and, after all, no one ever promised us a rose garden. The Orange Prize has proved that serious novels by women can triumph in the marketplace, and many authors who persist do come back from the wilderness in one way or another. The climate is difficult for everyone right now, but women writers stand as good a chance as men of surviving and bouncing back triumphantly. ■
LOUISE DOUGHTY is the author of six novels, including Whatever You Love (Faber), shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Novel Prize. She writes radio plays and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio 4 and is a tutor on Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. She is also author of A Novel in a Year, a how-to-write book based on her newspaper column. www.louisedoughty.com
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