Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Kafka and me.

There have been times when, as an unpublished novelist, I have felt a bit like K. in Kafka's The Castle. I once confided this to my agent. "You shouldn't read Kafka," he advised. "It will only depress you."

The story of K., the land surveyor whose life is taken over by his efforts to gain admission to the eponymous castle on the hill, resonates with a specific despondency for the struggling writer.

Like the castellans in Kafka's novel, the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are mysterious and unapproachable, elusive and all-powerful; the writer, like K., wants to appease them, craves their approval, for without it his life has no validity.

I don't want to push the analogy too far. It's quite possible I just read the book at a bad time. Or, equally, that everyone who reads Kafka finds his or her own reasons to be depressed by him. And since reading it, I have actually met a couple of those dread gatekeepers, who turned out, disappointingly, to be perfectly nice people. One of them even bought me lunch.

But now, amazingly, I find that I have stumbled into the castle, and it seems that some of the residents aren't very happy about it. It's nothing personal, I'm sure. It's just that the way I gained my entry has had a few of the Counts (got to be careful with the 'o' in that) who live in the castle fulminating about the riff-raff they're letting in these days.

I'm one of the authors taken on by Macmillan New Writing, you see. You could be forgiven for thinking that I have at last found the validation I was seeking. A major publisher, Macmillan no less, has deemed my novel worthy of publication.

How naive of you.

There have been a number of objections raised to my presence in the castle. First, the castle-dwellers are up in arms because I'm not receiving an advance, though I will get royalties. It’s gracious of the literary aristocrats to play shop-steward for the day, but, believe it or not, I'm fine with the deal as it stands.

Don't get me wrong. If there had been an advance on offer, I would have taken it. But I would then have fretted and sweated about earning it back. I know this. I am someone given to stress. To garner some publicity, I might even have written an article attacking 'cheap as chips' ventures like Macmillan’s, thereby identifying myself with the elitist nay-sayers. Meanwhile, I might also have worried that the elitist nay-sayer of today could turn out to be the forgotten mid-lister of tomorrow.

Perhaps unwisely, I happen to have written a novel that takes risks. Anyone who publishes it will be taking a risk too. If the price for a publisher who takes risks is no advance, then give me no advance. Besides, it's more than made up for by the brightly-coloured uniform I get to do my writing in (this is the ‘Ryanair of publishing’, after all).

Then it turns out that the reason they don't like my advance-less contract is not because they are my friends and comrades, but because they believe people like me are spoiling it for the proper writers. The proper writers being those who get advances. Hmm. Didn’t Jordan get a sizeable advance for a two book deal not so long ago?

Another objection is that Macmillan are somehow abdicating their responsibility to The Culture by publishing my book. As far as I can tell, what lies at the root of this is the fact that Macmillan have made it clear that they will not be taking on books that require major editing. But that's not the same as saying they will put out any old dross unedited.

What they have said is that they may advise authors whose manuscripts need substantial revision to seek the help of an 'editorial services' provider. This will be at the author's expense (hence the Ryanair jibe). It will not guarantee publication. So basically, it's a rejection mitigated by a suggestion. It's also an option open to any author at any time. Many of these firms advertise themselves with testimonials from the writers they have helped into print. It's advice which the writer is free to take or ignore. Macmillan didn't suggest it to me.

Just to set the record straight, my book has been edited. For example, one whole section was removed at the publisher's recommendation but not insistence. In other words, we talked about it. The editor’s opinion was that it contributed nothing to the story, or to the aesthetic of the book. Of course, being a first time novelist, I’ve got nothing to compare this to, but it strikes me as exactly the sort of in-put you would want from your editor. Whether or not it’s evidence of a responsibility to The Culture, I don’t know. But it does seem to be evidence of someone doing their job.

The truth is publishers and editors are human. They sometimes make mistakes and sometimes get it right. Bad books get published. Good books get overlooked. Some of the bad books that get published go on to be phenomenally successful. (That’s The Culture for you.) Some of the good books that have been overlooked, are at last discovered. (Lord of the Flies, anyone?)

When we’re trying to decide whether Macmillan New Writing is a good thing or a bad thing, I think we should spare a moment to remember John Kennedy Toole. He was the writer who killed himself when he failed to find a publisher for his posthumously published and now widely acclaimed novel The Confederacy of Dunces. If only something like Macmillan New Writing had been around for him, I can’t help thinking. He may not have got an advance but at least he would have lived to collect the royalties.

My novel Taking Comfort will be published by Macmillan New Writing in April 2006.


Linda Donovan said...

Excellent points about working with a publisher. Well written, and not the least depressing. You'll have to work harder on the Kafka'ing of your writing.

~ Linda

roger said...

Thanks Linda!

Thanks especially for posting twice!

lostinlove said...

hey congrats on getting ur book published,who cares whether it gets claim or not.and i like ur style of writing, i think i'll pick up ur book, is it for sale in india?

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Hi Roger

I just came across your blog following a link from Grumpy Old Bookman. Very best of luck with the enterprise. I have a friend, Aliya Whiteley, who will be published by MNW.

If your book is experimental, this kind of enterprise is probably ideal. Next: cult following, advances etc.

By coincidence, I just finished 'The Trial'. Jesus, that was depressing.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your comment, Roger. There's an entry on my blog about how I got the review in the Guardian: . I'm certainly trumpeting that review, but so far no agents have taken the bait. Fingers, and all other crossable things, and are crossed.

I write reviews for Spike magazine and would happy to take a look at your book.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Ooh, forgot to mention that I reviewed Tom's book on Spike:

Oohx2, here's the link to the post about the Guardian that I forgot to include! (My espresso isn't strong enough.) Hmm, the link is no longer there. Well, if you're interested, email me.


Debra Broughton said...


I have just found your blog, and found this post fascinating. I must admit the grumpy old bookman's analysis had got to me - this post is a great antidote!

Most advances are pitiful in any case these days, and there are enough readers out there who like risk-taking books (and not enough of those books to meet our needs).

Congratulations on the book deal. Your writing style is great - I'm sure the book will do well.

roger said...

Debra - thanks for looking in and thanks for your kind comments. I really appreciate it.