I recently came upon the story of the re-publication of a book called The Birth Machine, by blogger and writer, Elizabeth Baines. Elizabeth writes the blog Fiction Bitch, which is well worth following. The Birth Machine, which was originally published by the Women's Press but has been out of print for some time, is re-published in November 2010 by Salt Modern Fiction, champion of quality writing. I have just read it, loved it and plan to re-read it - I only do that rarely, when I've loved a book but feel that there was more to it than I found, that I didn't read it closely enough, that re-reading will be worthwhile.
Now, the story of is original publication is interesting and very, very complicated. As Elizabeth says, "The Birth Machine has a complicated, even scandalous, publishing history. When it was first published, it sold out of its 3,000 first print run and ended up being studied on university courses and dramatised for radio, but it was not reprinted, and in fact, it nearly didn't get published in the first place - all because the publishers decided that they had maybe made a mistake in agreeing to publish, as I - yes, little old me! - was too scandalous, indeed wicked, a person!"
I'd love you to go and read the full story because it's too complicated for me to précis. And it puts the novel in context, as a feminist novel written at a time when women could take nothing for granted.
Amazing story, eh? So, I was going to interview Elizabeth and I told her I'd get back to her with some questions but I decided that between her two blogs she gives a fantastic amount of information and insight, so instead, I've asked her to be my second Soap-Box Guest. Elizabeth has chosen a topic close to my heart: the myth that "talent will out". What she says also sheds new and piercing light on the ugly, almost unbelievable, story of the original publication of The Birth Machine
One thing that's always got me steamed up is the statement: ‘Talent will out.'
I guess if you've been a teacher in sink schools, as I have, and have witnessed first-hand the sorry situation of bright young talents doomed to waste through poverty and lack of parental expectation, you're bound to have my reaction. But nothing could have confirmed me in my view better than my experience over the first publication of The Birth Machine (The Women’s Press), when attempts were made to silence me as a writer, and which, as a friend said to me in wonder recently over coffee, could have destroyed me. (NM adds - I put the link above and hope everyone's now read it. Here if you need it again.)
Well, let me tell you, it did nearly destroy me - or it could have done if I'd let it. And, if I do say it myself, I hadn't been doing too badly before that, published in the top literary mags and anthologies of the time, alongside Angela Carter and JG Ballard and co. For one thing, I felt really ill, and frightened, and you don't write much when you're in that sort of state, do you? I actually felt physically frightened (there were the poison-pen letters, and one ‘feminist’ accidentally-on-purpose trod on my foot with her high heel, and I'd walk into feminist readings and the whole room would go horribly quiet, and no one would sit or stand by me). But really I think my physical fright was a manifestation of the fear of the very real possibility that I'd had it as a writer. Clearly, I was excommunicated from the feminist publishing world – and as I say there had been ‘feminist’ attempts to silence me - but I was afraid that having once been published by a feminist press, I’d be thus typecast and find it hard to get back into mainstream publishing. Indeed, when I did manage to write again, one of the things I was impassioned to write was a fairytale satire about what had happened, but mainstream publishers were clearly puzzled that I had sent it to them – a novel about the ins and outs of feminism - and suggested that since I was already published by a feminist press, I send it there! You can guess where that manuscript ended up (well, I don't have a drawer, I have a high shelf)...
So what did I do? What do you do when your writing career hits a wall, when you find that, contrary to the myth, talent alone simply isn't enough? You also need a certain amount of luck, and sometimes real bad luck can come your way instead, which I guess is happening to more and more writers as the publishers drop them from their lists for commercial reasons. Well, the other things that come in handy for a writer in such circumstances are perseverance and adaptability, which I'd say have to go hand in hand, as Nicola has already made clear in two great posts here and here.
I must say that for a long time I felt despairing. But I didn't give up. I looked around to see how I could still keep writing and get my work out into the world. I began writing radio plays, and ended up with a successful (and far better paying) radio career. Then a bit of good luck kicked in: because of my radio work, I was invited to write several novelizations of a popular TV series (which I did under a different name), something which at one time, I admit, I'd have thought beneath my higher literary concerns, but which, I'm telling you, taught me some of my most valuable lessons in plotting and economy and clarity. But also I went back to my first love, short stories, and since the market for short stories was shrinking at the time gave myself the mission of helping to keep it going by founding with my friend Ailsa Cox the short story magazine Metropolitan. And as soon as could I got back the rights to The Birth Machine, and published a short run of my own under my own imprint Starling Editions (with my original structure reinstated). The thing about starlings, you see, they're pests: you can't get rid of them.
And if I hadn't persisted with my stories, I'd never have had a collection to offer when a few years ago the publisher Salt began a list dedicated to short stories. Then - luck leaping up to my aid again - Salt decided to start publishing novels, and a year ago they published my novella, Too Many Magpies. And to my utter delight and sense of vindication, they asked me if they could reissue The Birth Machine...
So don't tell me talent will out, unless you add 'with a good dollop of luck and/or plenty of nimble footwork and sheer bloody-mindedness'.
Interesting story, isn't it? On the subject of luck, though, while I agree that luck plays an enormous and crucial part in all our lives, you can help luck along by doing all the right things, persevering, adapting, getting "out there". And Elizabeth did all those. Right place at right time doesn't happen if you don't get up in the morning.
I urge you to buy The Birth Machine. It's fascinating because it's of its time in style and content, but it's immensely readable, gripping, clever, important, and fascinating. Salt Modern Fiction are to be praised for bringing it back into publication.