Not an Odalisque

Judge Me

with 4 comments

Whenever I share my ambition to become a writer, I get the same reaction. Raised eyebrows and sneering lips communicate a belief that I am deluded and that I have little chance of success. Writing is, indeed, a difficult career. Law and medicine are, too, but I’ve never seen a law student get that reaction. So what is the difference between a wannabe lawyer and a wannabe writer?

To become a barrister, you must be selected for the Bar Professional Course, pass some pretty tough exams, find a law firm willing to take you on for a pupillage and one willing to offer you a job. Writers become writers when they get published. They then remain writers, a mostly undifferentiated mass including those who struggle on with a full time job and a pile of rejected second novels, and those who could retire on their earnings from speaking engagements their fame has brought. Only those at the very pinnacle of the profession, the J.K Rowlings and Margaret Atwoods of this world, are visibly different.

I’m sure that wannabe writers have asked their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to comment on their work. My friends are terribly nice about my scribblings, I’m sure theirs are, too. Writers don’t have to jump the hurdles and hoops of professions like law, so the first nay-sayer is likely to be an agent or editor.

I had an excruciating dinner with an editor once. She wanted to hear about my career plans. I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to be a writer. Listening to her stories, she seemed to be besieged by amateur writers proffering manuscripts, taxi drivers reciting their synopsis as they drove her through London and dinner party guests saying “let me tell you what happened to me, I’m sure it would make a great novel.” Her area was children’s books. I didn’t want anything from her, except possibly for her to cough up for the expensive bottle of wine she had ordered. But would she know that? I told her I didn’t know what to do next, and maintained the position throughout some fairly intensive interrogation. She gave me the number of a life coach who may be able to help.

The reason my editor friend feels besieged is that she is the first (or possibly the second, counting agents) hurdle for the aspiring writer. We haven’t been weeded out, like the law students, and sent off to do other things because we got bad GCSEs or A Levels. There’s a girl in my writing class who doesn’t know that she should capitalise “I” (as in myself). How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of her manuscript? How many more are there like that one? In many ways this system promotes equality. I was shocked, on going to a law graduation at Lincoln’s Inn, to find that while most of the graduates were female and Asian, the people handing out certificates were male and white. Writing isn’t free of discrimination, but judgement based on a manuscript provides fewer opportunities for it. On the other hand, sitting alone at your desk, you don’t get much encouragement, either.

So there are hordes of wannabe writers at the publisher’s gates. Some don’t have the basic rules of grammar pinned down; some have postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing. All of them think they have something unique to contribute, otherwise they wouldn’t persevere. The problem is that some of them can’t write. Or they haven’t yet. The only thing that will vindicate any of us is a book deal. With a book deal, we will ascend to the ranks of Real Writers, and we will be able to write snooty articles like this one from our elevated position. No longer will we be lumped together with the people who don’t capitalise “I” or think that the hallmark of good prose is a preponderance of adjectives. It will make the hours of work and the RSI worthwhile. Thus is becomes a kind of Holy Grail for writers. They obsess over the perfect covering letter, the layout of a manuscript, the colour of envelopes and the right number of Hail Marys. Jane Wenham-Jones pretended that she’d been invited to send her manuscript to an agent she met at a non-existent party. She writes of another who sent her first three chapters inside a cardboard cactus.

The problem, of course, is that publishers aren’t litmus testers for artistic merit (of literature or cacti), they are businesses trying to make money. They will buy your book if they think they can sell it. Some of them are better than others. Some of them are good at some of it, and aren’t interested in books about unicorns, even if they could win the Booker. Some of them just make silly mistakes. So not only is the colour of your envelopes unlikely to make a difference, the impact of brilliant writing is mitigated, too.

In my experience, wannabe authors respond to this truth about the publishing industry in one of two ways: denial or anger (do some of them move on to bargaining or depression? Absolutely). Those in denial continue sending out their multi-genre epic parody of a little known Slovakian writer, sure that, given its obvious merit, it will surely sell and its brilliance be confirmed. The angry ones curse the agents, the editors, and the whole evil system which has not regard for Art, only celebrity names and big tits. Quite seriously, I told someone recently that I wanted to be a writer, and she said “well, it will be easy for you.” I asked why. “You’re young and pretty,” she said, “they don’t want someone like me on the dustcover.”

Why won’t we accept it? I think it has something to do with the amount of ourselves that we pour onto the paper. Most professions create a distance between the professional self and the personal. We have power suits and uniforms to tell us that we are in a role, offices to remind us that we are in a public space. When companies try to manipulate our behaviour by introducing ‘fun time’ or dress-down Fridays, for example, or replacing every wall with a sheet of glass, as they did in my father’s office, they draw even more attention to the fact that you are expected to play your role. It isn’t like that for writers. Most writers are trying to say something that is important to them. Most writers are drawing on their own experiences. They don’t get to hide the experiences that make them look bad and they have to poke the places that hurt. Otherwise, we may as well go home and let Orwell’s Versificators do the work. Writing is in many ways an exercise in self-revelation. It is a confession. When we send it out, on some level it is not our work, but ourselves, that are being judged. No wonder we find it hard to cope with; who gets to put a price on me?

Augustine invited God’s judgement of his writing. Rousseau preferred to give that power to the general public. Who gets to judge mine? This week, the admissions tutors at the University of East Anglia. Wish me luck!


Written by Not an Odalisque

February 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Lots of luck! I really enjoyed reading this, and tomorrow after a good night’s kip, I intend to read more!! I too am attempting to get published, kid’s books though. I had my first two rejections through this week – so much fun! The world is so full of gush, its got to be pretty damn depressing to be a submission reader!

    Cheers for making me smile at the prospect of my months\years worth of rejection! This has got to be the fun part!


    February 21, 2010 at 11:41 pm

  2. Hi Nat,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Enjoy your rejections, they are part of the experience and, like they said about cross country in the rain at school, they are character building. That’s what I’m telling myself in the run up tp mine, anyway!

    Good luck with your writing, just keep sending it out.

    Not an Odalisque


    February 24, 2010 at 9:52 am

  3. If it helps: hoards are in cupboards, Assyrians (or in this case wannabe writers, albeit unlikely to have cohorts gleaming in purple and gold) are in hordes. I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but given the paragraph that follows…

    On the other hand, am absolutely enjoying the rest of your blog, so do please delete this comment after reading: as taken alone it is graceless.


    September 29, 2010 at 10:58 am

    • I’ve changed it, with only the merest twinge of embarrassment.

      I do hope you enjoy the rest of the blog.


      September 29, 2010 at 11:30 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: