In the course of a natter with my agent several years ago, the subject of beans came up. Go into your local Waterstones, she said. Go and stand in the novel section. Then she told me why.
Next time I was in Inverness, I did. There were four bays dedicated to novels, hundreds of titles, almost as many writers. My agent’s words suddenly made sense. They’re all different writers, she had said. All different books, but at the end of the day they’re all novels. They’re all tins of beans.
This was a new and arresting thought. It opened my eyes to the startling realisation that my novel is not a unique work of art written by a unique individual, in which immense reserves of time, obsession and creativity have been invested. It is a shelf-filler!
Say, for example, that your novel flops its way out of the slush pile to land on a reader’s desk. Suppose that she, not yet insensible from the contents of a gin bottle used to sustain her through the ordeal of reading a stack of unpublished material, finds that she likes it. She puts it to another reader for a second opinion. Now your book has been raised above the slush pile to the next level, one where books have been deemed to have more grit and substance. So let’s say that the promotion has put the book teetering atop the nutty slack heap.
If it makes it past this, and doesn’t find itself slithering back down to the slurry that separates nutty slack from slush, it may even find itself singing its way to a publisher.
Let’s skip on a bit. Just suppose that the publisher says yes. And there you are, your baby, your darling, has surfed over all obstacles and is now riding the crest with the gods in print.
They’re all different writers, all different books, but at the end of the day they’re all novels. They’re all tins of beans.
That conversation with my agent rubbed most of the sheen off the imagined glory of that moment. As someone who earns a living as a copywriter, I should really have worked that one out for myself. My book, should it ever drag itself from the slush, rise to the nutty slack and make it into mainstream print, after all it’s been through, is destined to become … a canned vegetable.
Even if I protest that my book is more a tin of asparagus than beans, the analogy holds. It’s fodder, and once it’s been digested, the reader will be back to replenish her larder with another tin.
I suppose this is something that every published writer learns to live with. Once they have their deal, the illusion of creating art evaporates. Every writer produces their first work without deadlines, and out of passion. I know more than one writer who, having got a book into print, has since struggled to find a taker for a second. One book is no guarantee of continued publishing success.
Once you are expected to produce work on demand, to timescales, that’s when the dream becomes reality, and passion becomes work, and the pressure to continually produce saleable ideas. Is that what most writers really want? And if so, is that what we are really cut out for? I wonder sometimes if that is the true point of separation between the published and the unpublished – not the quality of what we’re writing, but the drive to keep doing it. We all think we can handle the transition from amateur to professional, and we all long for the day when the long chain of No letters ends in a phone call that says Yes.
And we all know that we have to be careful what we wish for.