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Good books don’t always see the light of day

21 December 2010

11:13 AM

21 December 2010

11:13 AM

Elizabeth Baines is a novelist, playwright and blogger. Her work can be found at www.elizabethbaines.com,
and she blogs at
http://elizabethbaines.blogspot.com and at the cutting http://fictionbitch.blogspot.com. Her first novel The Birth Machine has been reissued as it was
originally intended; here she relates why.

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.

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