…is what BBC producer Geoff Ballinger dubbed me on Thursday as we were discussing the reaction of writer Rhian Waller to the on-air critique of her book…
Perhaps, just like the letter accompanying an unsolicited manuscript exhorted Nicola last week, I should start at the beginning. (Yes, I know, where else would you start reading a novel? I doubt it’ll come as any surprise that we weren’t overwhelmed by that particular submission either . . .)
So, as promised, I shall start at the beginning. From time to time I am invited by bestselling crime writer Phil Rickman (check out his latest, The Magus of Hay, published by Corvus) to join him on his regular BBC Radio Wales radio book show Phil the Shelf in the section of the show where he asks a writer, publisher or agent to critique a chunk of novel submitted by a willing listener. It’s not unlike doing a workshop, but in this case it’s not up to twenty people hearing the unvarnished truth about what I think of someone’s work; it’s thousands of listeners, and thanks to the magic of the BBC iPlayer, not just in Wales. Phil’s producer – in this case the redoubtable Geoff – will send me a synopsis and first few chapters of a novel and a week or so later Phil and I will discuss it on air, and when we’ve expounded on both the good and bad, then he’ll bring in the author to pass on our various words of wisdom. I do it for a number of reasons, only one of which is that I might well find something wonderful (and although it’s not happened yet, I live in hope).
Until Ian turned to the Dark Side and became an agent, I generally turned down submissions by saying, ‘Sorry, it’s not right for me.’ That simple sentence has the added bonus of being absolutely correct – but as @LitAgentDrury always points out, it might well be true, but it’s not very helpful. If there are specific things that didn’t work for me but might be right for someone else, it would be a little churlish of me not to point that out. So now, if there is something specific I can say (and do bear in mind that there isn’t always) I try to add a little more, even if it’s just an extra line (‘I personally don’t care for second-person-present-tense narratives where “you” turns out to be a stuffed crocodile sitting in a long-forgotten Cabinet of Curiosities stuffed away in the back of a seldom-visited town history museum in the middle of nowhere.’) That sort of thing.
When it comes to doing a show like Phil the Shelf, it’s even more important that the authors are left with an idea of where to go next. As the show’s pre-recorded and I never know which of my comments Phil and his producer are going to go with (pay attention to this line as it has an unexpected knock-on effect later on), I try to find several good things to say. What’s used (or not) can depend on timings as much as anything; sometimes a script can really spark off a debate and it takes the loud clearing of a time-conscious producer’s throat as a less-than-subtle reminder that the studio’s booked for an hour, not a week, to get us to shut up.
This particular show, recorded a couple of weeks ago, was going to be pretty easy, I thought. Geoff had sent a choice of two and as I had neither authors’ names nor biogs to influence me in any way, I picked the one he described as magical realism. As soon as I read the brief synopsis for Eithe’s Way I asked my Irish colleague Niamh how to pronounce ‘Eithe’ (assuming it was Gaelic and not wanting to make a complete fool of myself on radio). In fact, it wasn’t; Niamh was born at the height of the Gaelic craze and her schoolfriends were all Sineads, Aoifes and Aislings, but she’d never heard of an Eithe… so it was with some trepidation I opened the manuscript and started to read, as I was already trying to work out how I could avoid mentioning either the title or, as I quickly discovered, the name of the main character.
As it turned out, the author managed to win back some of the Brownie points lost for unpronounceable names (always high on my list of Things to Avoid) by including a conversation on how to pronounce her name (Ee-thee, if you’re wondering). The downside was that I had to get to Chapter Five; the upside was that the chapters were very short.
I generally read through the piece once, for immediate first impressions, then I go back and work my way through looking for specific point to talk about, and then when Phil and I are patched through to each other, we both have a list of things to discuss. And as it’s for radio, I have to read the whole piece. (You know what happens now: I start whining about how much time it all takes, especially when I’ve got edits stacking up behind me. So as that now goes without saying, let’s move on.)
Once we’ve wrapped, Phil and I generally keep on chatting a bit, exchanging state-of-the-nation wisdoms and witticisms – and then one of us will say something that will spark another thought about the book we’ve been discussing . . . at which point Geoff will reveal that he was still recording so we don’t have to say it all again. (Phew! How fortuitous is that?)
And from my point of view, that’s generally that. Thanks to the wonders of iPlayer I can at least listen to Phil the Shelf these days… and thanks to having the memory of a stuffed crocodile, I never do actually remember to tune in (or by the time I do it’s two weeks down the line and I’m listening to Jasper Fforde or Phil’s report from the Hay Winter Book Festival instead of me. I bet you’ve guessed I didn’t manage to listen to this one either.
But this one was slightly different, as it turns out, because the author in question turns out to be not just a Ph.D. student in creative writing but a journalist too (and yes, one of the nice things Phil and I both agreed on was that it was pretty obvious the author could write, so we called that one right at least). She writes for the Leader group and has a column in News North Wales, which somehow got picked up by BookBrunch, the British publishing industry’s daily news magazine. David North, Quercus’ MD, took great delight in forwarding me the link… which said starkly, ‘Jo Fletcher told me what was wrong with my novel – on the radio’.
Well, that was okay: I did, and it was. (But I said nice things too!)
Unfortunately for me, I was out all that day with an author, and it is such a nightmare trying to download anything from the internet on my phone that I don’t generally bother … but I was interested to see where this had come from, so I did try to click on the link.
All I could get up was: TEARS AND TRAUMA AS CRITICS RIP MY BOOK TO SHREDS.
NO! I thought, followed swiftly by, But I said nice things too! followed equally swiftly by, I’m sure I said some nice things . . . and then, Did they cut out all the nice things? followed by, ARGH!
And in between trying to concentrate on my one-on-one edit session, I kept running back Phil’s and my conversation through my head and coming up with the same result, which boiled down to ‘Maybe a little harsh in places, but I’m sure we were fair.’ (And when I emailed Geoff in a little bit of a panic, he agreed with my summing up.) So I almost stopped panicking…
When I did finally get home and called up the piece, I discovered to my enormous relief that the headline of Rhian Waller’s piece had in fact been written by a sub, not the author. As a journalist I was impressed; it did the job it was supposed to: it got me to read the piece (and was marginally within the bounds of truth!). As one of the critics accused of destroying someone’s life, I was less impressed, because contrary to the headline, Rhian’s piece must have been almost as hard to write as listening to us tear her book apart was.
Here’s the link to Rhian’s piece:
Which I commend to the house, because you always hear things from my point of view, but very rarely from the jilted author, and in this case Rhian’s really made me think. I’m doubly glad I try to find reasons for why a book doesn’t work for me (although I will say again: sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to explain why a book’s not for you other than gut feeling). Rhian said she’d been trying to get published for several years and had amassed more than 40 rejections thus far, but this was the first time she’d been given a straightforward critique, so I’m pleased that Phil and I were able to give her that.
When you read Rhian’s piece you’ll discover that it was a horribly painful experience, not least because thousands of listeners heard us turn her down too, but she’s still glad she submitted her book to Phil the Shelf. I admire her doubly for then going through it all over again by writing about it in her column (just in case someone missed the show).
Here’s the thing that I never do forget, but sometimes it just doesn’t show: every time I send out that ‘not for me’ letter, and every time I do a workshop, or a show like Phil’s, it may be just one more time for me, but it’s months and years of a writer’s life. We editors and publishers, we do know that, and if sometimes we come across as harsh or unfeeling, it’s weight of work, not that we don’t care. We do, I can promise you, and the proof is that we still read unsolicited manuscripts; we do workshops and programmes like Phil’s.
Phil asked Rhian, ‘Where are you going with this next?’ and in her piece, she says, ‘To the bin, I think.’
It may be that Rhian feels this particular book’s unfixable, or that she’s spent enough of her life on it, or she’s sick and tired of it, or that she can’t see how to make it work, and any and all of those are perfectly valid reasons for binning this particular project. It may be that Eithe needs to sit in a bottom drawer for a while and percolate, and it may be that Eithe should disappear… but just because this book doesn’t make it, doesn’t mean the next one won’t. Writers write because they can’t not write. I suspect I’ll be seeing more of Ms Waller in due course. I certainly hope so.
And I am extremely glad I didn’t reduce her to tears and trauma…
And so to Blackwell’s in London’s Charing Cross Road for last week’s launch of Sarah Pinborough’s highly acclaimed and much-lauded novella The Language of Dying, where I had the great pleasure of meeting ‘Dad’ (aka Mr Pinborough senior) and Sarah’s sister Laura. It’s a great shame that diplomats know all about ‘off the record’ (as do journalists, obviously), so I am sworn to secrecy…
But ah, the tales I now know. Thanks, ‘Dad’!