In search of another perspective on the World of Children’s Books, the good ship Books for Keeps casts off from Publishers Island and makes a new landfall on
The inhabitants of Authors Island are many and various: poets, artists, anthologists, dramatists, writers of fiction and non-fiction. Some are permanently resident, the ones for whom creating children’s books is a full-time job. Some live on the island but commute to jobs in other places; several of these work in other parts of the children’s book world as teachers, librarians, even reviewers. A few pop in for a while as a break from doing other things like being Prince of Wales or reading the news on television; but they don’t usually stay long.
The majority of people on Author Island are serious about what they do. Their main aim is to be published; to navigate the hazardous Chance Channel and avoid the depressing Rejection Reef. Some attempt the crossing alone; others take the route via Agent’s Island (we will visit that later). Some, particularly the writers of non-fiction, get commissioned; but it was not those we met on this first visit. Our aim was to find out something about the writers of fiction.
The writers of fiction
The main problem facing writers of fiction is that publishers may not publish what they write. We discovered while exploring Publisher’s Island that editors are mindful of their companies’ profits. They cannot simply publish what they like or think good; they have to publish books that will sell. What sells it seems is books that are new and gimmicky (hence the great wave of joke books, pop-ups and variations on pop-ups), or topical (all those Rubik cube books), and books that get noticed because they are on television or are written by famous people who appear on television.
None of that is much use to the writer of serious children’s fiction. If that writer is unknown and unpublished he or she has to find an editor who is willing to take a risk. Not easy at the best of times (no-one wanted to take on Watership Down); even more difficult now that library funds have been so drastically reduced. Pretty well impossible if your great work is something no-one wants – a 500 page historical novel for instance. Demand fluctuates: social realism, fantasy, stories for a multi-cultural society, novels for teenagers. At present what is wanted is novels for Juniors. But first novels do get published and even win awards. Kestrel must be delighted that their gamble on Michelle Magorian has paid off so well; she, not unnaturally, is worrying about making her second book as good.
Even with visits to schools and Book Fairs (which some enjoy and others don’t) writing is a solitary activity and authors often feel insecure. For most of them their relationship with their editors is very important and they come to depend on it for advice, criticism and encouragement. An editor is often the first to hear a vague idea for a book, the audience for the first draft or the opening chapters. To change editor can be traumatic.
Most writers, feeling a kind of loyalty, will stay with one or perhaps two publishing houses. But if an editor moves he may take `his’ writers with him, and a very popular or successful writer may be offered tempting contracts to write for another imprint. Most editors feel a duty to publish new work from established writers; but what happens when a writer doesn’t want to write what a publisher wants to publish or a publisher doesn’t want to publish what a writer wants to write?
We met many writers on Author Island. One of them was Jan Mark.
As we were leaving she thrust a manuscript into our hands. ‘Take this back to the mainland,’ she cried, ‘so they will know what it is like for us.’
It was, of course, a story.
Ullysses among the sirens
When the Trojan War was over, Ulysses climbed into his typewriter and set sail for home. The rays of the sinking sun cast a long shadow behind him, so he knew he must be headed westward, and his belief was confirmed when he passed a boatload of publicity and marketing personnel, proceeding in the opposite direction. They leaned over the gunwales and hailed him severally.
‘Where’ve you been for the last ten years?’ they asked in tones of friendly inquiry.
‘At the Trojan War,’ Ulysses replied.
‘But I sent you to a Book Fair,’ said his publicity officer, in some alarm, nervously waving his claim for expenses.
‘Is that what it was?’ Ulysses muttered, but the two craft were fast drawing apart and they did not hear him.
‘You wouldn’t like to go and talk to a group of librarians in Huddersfield, would you?’ called the marketing manager, over the stern.
Ulysses indicated his assent since he did, in fact, like doing just that, and they bade farewell to each other with cries of mutual goodwill across the darkling sea for, oddly enough, publicity and marketing were always very nice about his books in spite of the fact that it was they who had to sell the things and the things were, in many instances, reckoned to be virtually unsaleable.
It was now twilight, but he thought he remembered well enough the straits through which he must pass, and there were many other authors floating in the same general direction, so with a wad of favourable reviews for buoyancy, he put his feet up on the platen and cruised in slumber over the limpid waters.
When next he sat up and took notice he was alone, and the dawn air was appreciably cooler. In some consternation Ulysses looked all round him at the lineaments of the islands amid which he was travelling. By the proud logos agleam at the summit of every insular peak, he realized that he had drifted among the Publishers’ Group but, whereas he recollected it as having been drawn on the map with firm assurance, it was not now as he recalled it. He could not help noticing, for instance, that the landscape seemed constantly to be changing and shifting. Isles which he had regarded hitherto as terrae firmae had sunk without trace, while violent submarine convulsions caused others to rise in unexpected places, amalgamating as he watched, or altering shape unrecognizably. One little lawny islet disappeared without trace before his very gaze, and tipped a population of frantic authors into the water. He could not see whether the editors were similarly thrown clear or went down with their list.
Eventually a tidal wave washed him into the mouth of a spacious bay which, by its deceptively calm appearance, misled him into believing it to be a haven. Trembling with relief he stood upright to announce his presence, and was instantly assailed by melodious cries emanating from a number of marine beasts basking in the sunshine upon rocks which punctuated the bay. Dazzled by the glittering light reflected from the iridescent scales of their tails, he was reassured to recognize a familiar face on the ingesting end of one such creature that beamed upside down at him from a nearby rock.
‘Excuse me,’ Ulysses began courteously, ‘but were you not once my editor?’
‘Whaddya mean, were?’ the creature exclaimed, whipping over onto its front with a switch of its sinewy tail.
Having had a classical education Ulysses replied, ‘I took you for a siren.’
‘Alluring? Oh yes, I see what you mean,’ the editor said, with a deprecating moue. ‘But underneath this admittedly gorgeous exterior, I am still your editor. More to the point,’ it went on, ‘are you still our author?’
‘Times have been hard,’ Ulysses replied, defensively. ‘I have, after all, been toppling the topless towers of Ilium for the last ten years.’
‘If, by that laboriously literary metaphor, you mean you’ve been churning out lumping great tomes that make War and Peace look like a quickie and won’t sell 1500 copies in hardback,’ said the editor, ‘don’t blame me. I mean to say,’ it continued, severely, ‘you’ve spent so much time writing recently, that we thought you might have gone whoring after false gods.’
‘You mean that crowd over there?’ Ulysses asked, pointing to the neighbouring rocks from which the uproar of bright ideas and preened scales rose in a deafening aural cloud. ‘Other publishers?’
‘They’re not real publishers!’ the editor shouted. ‘Incubi; succubi; anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.’
‘Aw, come off it,’ said Ulysses, ‘they’re not that bad. I’ve seen you talking to them – at parties – ‘
‘That was different,’ the editor said, hurriedly. ‘You keep out of their way. You wouldn’t like them, really.’
‘I wasn’t going anywhere near them,’ Ulysses said. ‘You’ve done it before,’ the editor remarked.
‘Only because you asked me to,’ Ulysses returned, quickly, ‘while you were on another rock.’
‘That was different,’ the editor snapped. ‘I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moones sphere,’ it chanted, and rolled onto its back again. It appeared to doze for a while, after that, leaving Ulysses to ride at anchor, but meanwhile the waters had increased in turbulence, and the cries from the adjacent rocks grew more insistent. The mellifluous voice of the Children’s Editor from Reptile Books vied with the blandishments of its counterpart at Effing & Blinding (Est 1832), while the representatives from the juvenile lists of Rodent Publishing and Cascara Paperbacks outsang each other in gut-busting fervour. Ulysses knew he should put wax in his ears but he, unlike the publishers, was only human. With growing self-esteem he heard himself offered simultaneous paperback publication, lunch, the illustrator of his choice and an orange colophon just like the grown-ups have, if only he would agree to confine himself to the 8-12 Age Range, a geographical feature to which he had not, previously given much attention. At the sound of this last mentioned, his editor awoke with a discordant clang.
‘Wossat?’ it said ferociously. ‘8-12 Age Range? There’s gold in them there hills, cock, and you first climbed them under our imprint. There are people,’ it said, with a leery wink, ‘who wouldn’t be sorry to see you go up again – and stay there.’
‘What goes up must come down,’ said Ulysses, sulkily kicking the shift lock, and imperceptibly nosing the typewriter round to face the Children’s Editor from Reptile Books, which flashed sultry oeillades at him from behind a copy of its latest best-seller, ‘You Can Do the Cube and Chew Gum at the Same Time’.
‘How about a quick sprint together up the 14+ Age Range?’ Ulysses asked over his shoulder, in a last effort at coercion.
‘I know your quick sprints,’ said the editor. ‘75,000 words and the hero pegs out on the last page. A barrel of laughs it isn’t. No. Mind you,’ it murmured, ‘you weren’t bad on the 8-12s.’
‘How about the nursery slopes?’
‘8-12,’ the editor reiterated, with a dreamy fixated gaze in its eye, and abstractedly flirting its tail so that a myriad of droplets sketched rainbows in the air. ‘Some say 7-10, but it’s really 8-12 … ‘
‘Are you asking me to write a book for the 8-12 Age Range?’ Ulysses said, with a wild surmise, and resolutely turning his back upon the Reptile editor which rose up on the tip of its tail and beckoned him languorously.
His own editor was staring at him with a surmise that was, if anything, even wilder. ‘We could always do War and Peace as a pop-up book,’ it said. ‘Would you like to work on the text?’
‘It would need shortening,’ Ulysses pointed out, doubtfully.
‘Yet, well; a bit,’ the editor conceded. ‘But that’s what you’re good at,’ it went on, brightening. ‘Think what we could do with Pierre, popping up at Borodino… ‘
Ulysses got out his loud hailer and addressed the editor of Cascara Paperbacks.
‘How do you fancy a teenage novel?’ he inquired.
‘Like a hole in the head,’ came the reply, across the wine-dark sea. Ulysses turned back to his editor, which was still speaking.
‘You weren’t thinking of compiling a joke-book, were you?’ it asked, hopefully, ‘with sections introduced by famous people? Mother-in-law jokes by Hecuba… Blindness jokes by Polyphemus… ?’
‘No I bloody wasn’t,’ Ulysses said.
‘Hoity-toity,’ said the editor indicating, with its nether fin, the waters that were rapidly silting up with unsuccessful authors who sank under the weight of waterlogged letters of rejection. ‘One of your novels weighs about as much as a hundred wet rejection slips,’ it said, meaningly, ‘and reviews won’t keep you afloat for ever. Hey- where do you think you’re off to?’ it demanded, as Ulysses turned his typewriter toward the horizon.
‘Sod this for a game of candles,’ said Ulysses, ‘I’m going to write an adult novel.’
‘You’ll perish miserably!’ the editor shrieked, thrashing from side to side on the convoluted coils of its tail. ‘The world is flat. You’ll fall off the edge and never be heard of again! There’s no such thing as an adult novel!’
Ulysses was discomposed for a moment, until he recalled that the unfortunate creature had spent so long on its rock surrounded by unsolicited manuscripts that it had forgotten that such things as adult novels existed since, as it had once complained bitterly, it never got the chance to read any.
So he forged ahead until he felt the typewriter rocked savagely by an upheaval in the sea astern. He looked back and desolation met his gaze. Once again the mighty archipelago was on the move; islands rose, sand banks foundered, rocks ground together, chasms opened and volcanoes belched, as Rodent Publishing, Cascara Paperbacks Ltd, Reptile Books and Effing & Blinding (Est 1832) metamorphosed and finally coalesced into one vast benighted land mass crowned with peaks of uniform height that encircled inescapably the miserable little puddle of water where Ulysses lay becalmed upon his Olivetti. Wordlessly, for once, he looked all about him at the rampart of implacable cliffs that surrounded his craft. It was the 8-12 Age Range, and it had got him.
Jan Mark started her career as a writer for children in 1974 when she won the Penguin/Guardian competition for a novel for the 8-12 age range with a twentieth century setting. That book, Thunder and Lightnings won the Carnegie medal and was runner-up for the Guardian Award. Her third novel, for older readers The Ennead showed a radical change in style which delighted some and dismayed others. In similar style are Divide and Rule, and Aquarius (published this month). Rightly refusing to be typecast Jan Mark has also written Nothing to be Afraid of, a collection of short stories which was highly commended for the 1980 Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award refused to consider because it was ‘too adult’. (It will be available in Puffin this autumn.) Last year came Hairs in the Palm of the Hand, two very funny long short stories with a school background.
Jan Mark is published in hardback by Kestrel and in paperback by Puffin and Granada. A new book The Dead Letter Box will be published by Hamish Hamilton in June.