Monday, 6 December 2010

SOAP-BOX: ELIZABETH BAINES & A DIFFICULT BIRTH

My blog tries to make sense of the publishing industry, tries to shine a torch on the pitted path to publication, tries to show sensible paths through the madness. Usually, I believe the whole writing world makes a kind of sense. Sometimes, it utterly defeats me.

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

TALENT ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH by Elizabeth Baines

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.

25 comments:

Anne R. Allen said...

Thank you for this. I'll definitely give her work a look. This is the real story of contemporary publishing. There's a huge industry out there built on lying to aspiring writers, telling them the market is still as open as it was twenty years ago. But most of it is lies. And the worst thing you can do is get published to good reviews and slow sales. Better to be unpublished for 20 years.

But Elizabeth seems to have defeated them all. Small presses may be literature's only hope...and English radio plays. I listen to them via the Internet--an escape from dumbed-down US culture. There are smart people out there!

charlotteotter said...

That's a book I'm definitely going to have to read. Thanks for drawing my attention to it, Elizabeth's story and her blog - to which I have just subscribed.

And hooray for Salt Publishing!

Dan Holloway said...

Very interesting post not least for another insight into the feminist presses - a good writer friend of mine has experienced a similar reaction to the one Elizabeth describes that has had a similar effect on her.

The "talent will out" brigade are one of the few groups in society who make my blood boil, because that seemingly innocuous phrase perpetuates so much social immobility. As Elizabeth points out, that the criteria for entrance to university/careers/whatever are the same for all is hardly the same as giving everyone an equal chance for their talent to shine when many children are full-time carers for a parent or come from a family wherte whilst there may be a wish for them to "do well" there is, for no fault of their own, simpl no knowledge of what this might mean at all in terms of concrete steps to be taken; even things as simple as a quiet space and time to do homework are alien across many whole schools let alone families - how is telling a child from that background they need the same grades as an equally raw talented individual from a middle class home going to help them?

I've said a similar thing about the publishing industry - the pitch letter and synopsis requirement serves to perpetuate the middle class books for middle class readers bubble in which it operates. It seems utterly innocuous - the comment I most frequently get is "anyone who can write a readable book must be able to write a well-structured query letter". That's simply "we ask for the sanme grades" dressed up in business-specific speak.

Thought-provoking, fantastic post

Nicolette said...

Interesting post! The phrase 'talent will out' is said, I think, to give hope. That if you're talented and you keep ploughing on with your writing, then eventually, you will be published/successful, whatever your criteria for writing is. However I do believe, very strongly, that luck and timing play a greater part. The right manuscript has to land on the right desk at the right time with the right person, who's in the right mood. Only then might your 'talent' be spotted.
Cynical perhaps?

Sue Guiney said...

I knew this story about Elizabeth's book, but it was great to read it here, all so clearly laid out. I do agree that talent won't necessarily get itself out, especially in today's climate. And even if it does, it may just be a tiny outing unless the writer is prepared to do a great deal of self-promotion (as difficult as that may be) and marketing, and be as innovative and flexible as she/he can be. Much about the industry is changing, I think, and we also have to be professional and realistic enough to keep abreast of those changes and use them to our advantage -- as Elizabeth certainly does.
Thanks for a great post.

Keren David said...

I agree with her completely about 'talent will out' being a lazy and complacent way of powerful people ignoring inequality. Getting published is part talent, part timing, part luck - like most things in life. Very few of us have the kind of career that is completely predictable and safe.

Sally Zigmond said...

As others have commented, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking post on many levels. I have never subscribed to the 'talent will out' mantra and Elizabeth's awful (but ultimately inspiring) experiences show that much more is needed and that raw talent cannot survive without that stubborn kernel of self-belief, bloody hard work and determination, none of which are easily come by--and more often than not will wither on the vine. However, I am suspicious of that word 'luck.' Luck is predominately a result of all the above coming together at the right time. The fact that it's rare gives it that magical quality. But, rightly or wrongly, humanity needs that magic star (call it luck, if you like) to aim for in order to keep our hopes alive. Hope is ultimately what prevents us from giving up--as the Greeks (and Pandora) long ago discovered.

BuffySquirrel said...

I take the more radical line that talent as we understand it simply doesn't exist. It's a good excuse for why the rich succeed and the poor fail, though.

Guilt by association sucks. But John should've known better. Srsly.

JaneF said...

What a shocking story. And how ironic that the feminist press seemed unable to separate Elizabeth's actions from those of her male partner.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone, and thanks so much Nicola for the opportunity to talk about these things.
But Buffy, I must defend John. He did NOT know better, and there is seriously no SHOULD about it. He certainly knew better the moment the shit hit the fan, but before that he seriously if naively thought that feminists would be pleased to know that a man could understand a woman's point of view.
And, more importantly, he was making a serious effort to understand a woman's point of view and was testing himself out on it. It's important to remember that this occurred at a very precise moment in the history of the women's movement, and the way things developed. At this time Spare Rib had still only very recently been publishing male writers, and had been open to their views.

BuffySquirrel said...

*is sorry*

Still, perhaps he hadn't understood their point of view as well as he thought :).

Elizabeth Baines said...

No, he certainly didn't!!

Dan Holloway said...

@Buffy "It's a good excuse for why the rich succeed and the poor fail"
Hurrah to that. My wife and I watched Piers Morgan (don't ask why) do a programme on Monaco and he did an interview on a speedboat with James Caan from Dragons' Den, and asked him about his tax status. James calmly said that he deserved everything he had because he worked hard. I think there's a proportion of the people on one side of the fence who genuinely don't see how disgusting statements like that are. I used to enjoy teaching existentialism, taking students through Sartre. They all loved him, of course, being 18 year olds. "We are the sum of our choices" - it's such a great, inspiring line. They felt so uplifted. Which is when I'd say "so imagine it's 1800 and you're a slave." Or "Imagine you've been sold into the Lord's Resistance Army" - "it's terrible! Horrific! Should ba banned!" "Why? You've just argued it's their own fault." "No we haven...Oh." Funny how with these so-called inspiring aphorisms people are so keen to see one side of it they ignore the fact there's another,and that one can't be true without the other

Elizabeth Baines said...

BTW, I think my main point about luck is that actually sometimes you can have really bad luck, as I think I did, and in many ways I think that good luck = the absence of bad luck. Basically there are some events that are out of your control. But then on the other hand I do believe that there are ways in which you can act to turn things around. I know I called that chance to write the TV novelisation a bit of good luck, but maybe I shouldn't have done, as in fact, as Nicola points out, I had to have been making myself visible in the first place for someone to invite me...

Anna Bowles said...

I like this post a lot, for the same reasons as everyone else. The spotlight's on feminist presses here, but there is small-mindedeness to be found in every part of publishing and the media, like everywhere else. Being all individual and talented and expressing yourself *might* get you hailed as a genius... but if what you're doing isn't convenient and digestible as well as clever, it's equally likely to get you ostracized.

Dealing sensibly with that is such an important skill for a writer who wants to be true to their own voice, but I see too few acknowledgements that the problem even exists.

Laura Marcella said...

Nice post! I agree that talent, perseverance, and determination go together. Luck helps, too, but you can't get that "luck" if you don't put time in and do the work! Persistence is how you get to be in the right place at the right time, or in a lucky situation. :)

adele said...

Lovely to see two of my friends meeting like this, so to speak! Elizabeth used to be neighbour of mine in Manchester and I've known her for decades. Indeed, I have a copy of the first edition of the wonderful Birth Machine. This story is fascinating in all sorts of ways and to those who haven't read Elizabeth's work I do heartily recommend it. TOO MANY MAGPIES is terrific and she's a very good short story writer, too. Nicola writes great books as well, but readers of this blog know that!

Tracy said...

UGH, certainly not sure of the birthing chair so I'm feeling fortuante I've already had my son :)
However, I don't really go by the term 'luck' I think people make their own luck; there is only what happens in life; good, bad or indifferent, things happen for a reason.
Thanks for the thoughtful post...

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments - really interesting stuff. Sorry I didn't join in yesterday - I'm up to my ears in stuff.

Dan, actually, I absolutely subscribe to the "anyone who can write a readable book must be able to write a well-structured query letter" view. I disagree that it's middle-class or divisive. What i think is divisive is when we say that someone who is not middle class is somehow less capable of learnign to write such a letter. No one is born knowing how to do it and I know plenty of middle class people who are utterly useless at all forms of writing. I can't stand classism either, but I also don't like it where it's seen in places where it isn't.

As Keren says, "talent will out" is a lazy and complacent phrase if it's believed too strongly. But, unlike BuffyS, I do believe in talent as something more than learning. I don't subcribe to the nature OR nurture polarisation: nature and nurture are not in duspute with each other but are intricately connected. And that is one very important part that luck plays - after all, we have no control over genes or early environment. But after that, unless you don't believe in any free will, we have some free will over our small actions. Hard work, what we chose to learn, what is thrust upon us, luck - all these play a part but we are not passive creatures and we affect our own lives in many ways which are of our volition, as well as those which aren't.

Funny, I think I wrote a novel about this...

Dan Holloway said...

Just to clarify, I wasn't at all saying that class had anything to do with someoene's ability to learn how to write a pitch letter, though it may have sounded like I was saying that - that would be patronising in the extreme as you rightly point out. I was pointing out that for people in some circumstances getting access to the means to learn some thingss that are inherently learned techniques is much harder than it is for others - some people just don't have access to the internet/books on the subject (yes, this is a very good pro library argument, but time to get to the library can be a class issue)/time to practice technique - yet may be brilliant storytellers. And yes, yes, I *know* that the riposte is that the storytelling skill still has to be edited into a readable work, but I think that's a red herring, which is where my point circuitously gets back to Elizabeth's story and the existence of feminist presses in the first place so that women's stories could be told by women, edited by women, published by women, and then read by women without having been filtered however unconsciously by an industry that was still patriarchal (and the belief that such filtering was institutional and needn't be conscious was a central tenet). Surely the parallel isn't way off the mark? One can imagine the writers at Virago saying "I'm a woman writing for women. What possible relevance could the opinions of a male editor at Penguin have?" From what I've seen of the publishing industry, it seems that the gender words could be replaced with class words and the sentence still make sense. Whcih doesn't mean I want to bring down traditional publishing, or that I'm patronisingly calling for lesser standards (this is an accusation that's always leveled at groups with any kind of separatist leaning, and it's highly insidious because it seems to expose them as patronising, but it's a red herring because it semantically scans different as lesser). I would like to see more community-based publishing ventures like ABC Tales and Social Spider - and start-up fuinding given to community-based publishing businesses that could then go on to flourish on their own merit.

womagwriter said...

Arrgghhh my TBR pile is about to get one book higher...

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks so much for this. Excellent, all of it.

BuffySquirrel said...

Ok, I have my open mind and my cup of tea handy. Produce your evidence for the existence of 'talent' :).

Elizabeth Baines said...

Buffy, maybe you are saying my work shows no evidence of talent. I can't answer that.

If you are speaking more generally here's a post of mine that touches on that: http://fictionbitch.blogspot.com/2007/02/creative-accounting.html

BuffySquirrel said...

Lol, no, I wasn't saying that at all XD. 'Talent' is just such a hackle-raiser for me. It's like God--everyone claims to believe in it but nobody has any evidence that it exists.

Thanks for the link :).