Elizabeth Baines is a novelist, playwright and blogger. Her work can be found at www.elizabethbaines.com,
Christmas, a time for dreaming, and here, sure enough, are the Christmas books offering the dream that whatever your beginnings – East End boy selling TV aerials out of a van or anthropomorphized desert meerkat – with talent and determination you’ll succeed. It’s especially ironic, it seems to me, that it should be the publishing industry peddling this notion, since literary talent has never been less guaranteed to succeed within its prevailing culture.
Books are rarely chosen for publication on literary merit alone, however, and while the Holy Grail of mass-marketability is currently pushing things to the extreme, there have always been other cultural factors besides literary considerations determining the choices and making or breaking books and writers. This was something I discovered when my novel The Birth Machine, now reissued by Salt, was first published in 1983.
The first edition of The Birth Machine had a good critical reception, was quickly taken up as recommended reading on university courses, and the first print run sold out. It was subsequently dramatised for BBC Radio 4 and has been discussed in several literary-theory publications. The brute fact, however, is that it very nearly didn’t see the light of day.
Mainly, it fell foul of first one and then the other of two (ironically) opposing cultures, both of which have now passed into recent history. My track record as a short-story writer had gained me a top literary agent, but when he tried to sell the novel, my first, to mainstream publishers it fell on stony ground: with its story hinging on a hi-tech birth (though it’s about more than that), the book was considered just too ‘strange’. That could have been the end of it, and probably would have been, had not a publishing house just been established to publish books eschewed by the mainstream press for such subject-matter: The Women’s Press, who took up the book with alacrity. Unfortunately, however, it happened that the women’s movement was at a point in its development when it was still vulnerable and threatened, and only days after The Women’s Press had agreed to publish, others in the movement decided – for reasons other than the book, which you can read about here – I was indeed a threat. I believe that great pressure was put on The Women’s Press not to publish me: certainly they were now doubtful that they were in a position to do so. In the end they went ahead, but it could easily have gone the other way. Furthermore, as a result of these pressures, the book The Women’s Press published was not the book I had written. Clear that they were prepared to drop the project at any time, I had no power to negotiate over a structural change made for political feminist reasons. It was a change that disrupted my political and aesthetic purpose (I hadn’t intended the book to be read only by women, but it was edited specifically for this purpose) and which I think made for a less good book in literary terms – a change which I’m pleased to say the new Salt edition reverses. The campaign to silence me didn’t cease, either, and the end result was that The Women’s Press and I parted company, and in spite of its potential for an ongoing life The Birth Machine fell out of print.
Clearly if such cultural forces can be so strong in determining literary success, then literary exposure can be also a matter of timing. On its first publication The Birth Machine was never even offered to a male audience, and I think it was marginalised within a women’s movement which at that particular moment in its history was focussing on lesbianism and losing interest in heterosexual women’s concerns. Yet since republication last month I have had emails from political birth groups that didn’t even exist then, and from men who have been strongly affected by the book because, due to changes in society since, they’ve had personal involvement in the experience it portrays.
I feel very lucky, and very grateful to Salt. But it’s as well to remember that there are books, and writers, who can sink without trace through reasons other than lack of literary talent.