Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

On not liking

June 14, 2010

I don’t like football. Not even the World Cup. I don’t like Jane Austen either.

It’s hard to admit to not liking something. Especially if that something is liked by almost everybody else. One doesn’t want to be a spoilsport.

The World Cup is the more timely example. On Saturday, everybody I knew was watching the game. Usually, when it’s World Cup time, I make an effort. I tell myself – go on, it’s not just football, it’s an England match, you’ve got to watch it. I sit down with some friends and a luke-warm beer, often in a hideously over-crowded pub, and try to groan in the right places.

This year, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up those hours to pretend to follow and enjoy something that I have absolutely no interest in. While Saturday’s match was going on I was reading in the bath. (It wasn’t Jane Austen)

But, frankly, who cares if I like football or not? Conversations about likes and dislikes are almost always unbearably dull. Take, for instance, the following conversation about seeing a film with a friend. You are both leaving the cinema:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Yeah I really enjoyed it; I thought it was great.’

‘Oh yeah, me too. Although I found X a bit annoying.’

‘Really? I quite liked him.’

‘Why? How could you like him?’

‘Don’t know, just did. I thought it was all really good.’

People’s opinions, obviously, vary; people, of course, like and dislike different things. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere interesting with a conversation when it’s reduced to this. Saying that you like something is so pointless, you might as well say nothing at all. Why not have a conversation more like this:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘God, I couldn’t believe the bit when X happened. It was so crazy. It was really scary.’

‘Yeah, I know – it was such a weird thing to happen. I totally thought Y was going to happen instead, I was really taken by surprise.’

‘Yes, I think it’s because after B you just sort of assume Y will happen next. I wonder why they made X happen instead?’

You have a discussion and instantly it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if you like it or not.

So I try to avoid admitting that I don’t like Jane Austen, or football. It’s so boring. I’d only do it if I could launch a discussion from it and talk about it in a looping, digressing, anecdote-filled way. For football, for instance, I could say:

I don’t like watching lots of people chase a ball around in a confined space. I don’t like admitting to the knowledge that England are never very good. I don’t like that collective feeling of failure and gloom that settles over the country after the inevitably second-rate performance. I don’t like the beeriness – the chanting and the fights. Once I was on the tube after a football match and there was a crowd of men all draped in England flags, singing and jumping around and being generally antisocial. And then one of them vomited on the floor about six inches from my feet.

That at least is the bones of an argument and a funny(ish) story to boot. I can hear ten of my male friends wanting to jump in … ‘But…’ ‘But how can you say…?’ ‘But what about …?’ I can even a hear a few girl friends wanting to get in there too.

And I suppose the argument wouldn’t be completely absolutely dull. I might learn a little bit more about the off-side rule, I might be persuaded into having a little more faith in our country, I might admit that it’s quite special for everyone to be bound together in collective hope for ninety minutes. But I don’t think it would be a particularly nice conversation. Either I’d annoy people who really like football. Or someone would agree and we’d spend half an hour mouthing it off, being extraordinary negative and snipey and nasty.

But it’s better than saying, ‘I don’t like football.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’

I really believe that this theory of the irrelevance of likes and dislikes holds for most things. But what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to say whether you like something or not?

When I worked in publishing, one of the jobs given to us underlings was the awful business of writing rejection letters. We’d have to deal with the pile of unsolicited, unagented submissions that ranged from miscellanies of unusual medical words to sixth unpublished novels about Vikings. We were instructed not to say anything remotely encouraging or even to really engage with what had been written. The last thing you want, I was warned, is for them to write back offering to change it, adapt it, improve it for your reconsideration.

I was faced with a blank piece of paper, which had to be filled by saying, essentially, ‘I don’t like this.’

We were given examples and templates to follow. They went along the lines of:

Dear X,

Thank you for sending me Y to read. It was an interesting submission but I’m afraid it just wasn’t one for us, so I’m going to have to say no.

I wish you the best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.

Yours sincerely

To begin with I tried to change this. I tried to write letters enthusing about aspects of the work, saying that I liked it (I often did) but the higher powers didn’t (they never did). Unsurprisingly, these were never allowed to be sent out. I can see that encouraging someone who is probably never going to be published is not particularly helpful. Cruel to be kind, I was told. Small consolation for the guilt as I sealed the envelope on a letter of approximately two sentences saying, bluntly, ‘I don’t like your work,’ knowing that it would be opened by someone who would feel upset and useless and that their work is completely unvalued.

But then, is it really useful to reject something, or someone, and justify it with spurious reasons? The worst break-ups are the ones which go into painful lists of what you don’t like about each other, pulling up examples of past arguments, dissecting disagreements. It’s open-heart surgery without an anaesthetic. Why bother to slice through things, to cut it all open, to rehash all those old fights all over again? You, or the other person, have decided that you don’t like each other enough. Leave it at that. Walk away. Use a euphemism, an excuse … lie. It is far better to say some rubbish like you’re not feeling able to commit to someone at the moment than to say I think you’re a real drip and you never make me laugh and all your friends are losers. Any discussion is instantly too personal, too painful, far too upsetting.

Opinions are the murderers of conversation. Most of the time they should be avoided. But occasionally, when it gets personal, when conversation should be avoided, then it’s absolutely best to rely on their power. If the answer’s no, the answer’s no. No need to make it any more horrible, upsetting or nasty than that.


January 23, 2010

Hello and welcome to EmilyBooks, a blog about books and me – Emily. I hope you like it.

I thought I’d begin by writing a bit about where books and me overlap. Perhaps it helps to think of ‘EmilyBooks’ as a kind of graphic. There’s me, ‘Emily’, walking along (by the way, there will be much more about walking to come …) and then, wow, there’s ‘Books’ standing there in the way. And Emily can’t stop in time to just look at Books, say a friendly hello, give a little wave; she can’t keep any distance from it at all – there’s no space, no full stop or dash, not even a hyphen. Instead she goes smack into the side of it, and is now stuck there, unable to disentangle herself.

And that, Best Beloved, is how Emily became attached to books.

I’m not entirely sure when that first moment was. I don’t think, in real life, the collision happened quite like that. Looking back, I can see that my particular attachment to Books changed as I grew older.

I always read a great deal when I was young. I spent a great deal of time on my own when I was growing up – although I have two brothers, they’re much older than me – and I soon became aware of the magic that lay dormant in the pages. As soon as I started reading, I was no longer sitting around in my bedroom, a bit bored, vaguely wondering when it would be dinner, or putting off doing some piano or cello practice (more on cello-playing to come …). No, once the book was open, I would be on my way to Redwall or Deptford or Willoughby Chase; I’d be entering a Secret Garden, or a Midnight Garden, or hiding from German planes in air-raid shelters; or sailing, on an expedition, drawing a map. Who needs a wardrobe with fur coats, when there are books? At that age, books were my brilliant escape routes, ready to transport me from a rather dreary suburban bedroom to far more exciting places.

I have to confess I didn’t read quite as voraciously when I was a teenager. There was lots of homework from my rather pushy London day school, plus cello practice – I’d given up the piano by then as there wasn’t enough time – and meeting friends, and, of course, boys. In fact, when it came to choosing A-levels, I very nearly didn’t study English. I’d become completely fascinated by Biology, so had chosen everything based around that: Chemistry and Maths to back it up, plus Economics, which I’d added on at the end, thinking that it might be useful. However, my parents, in a typically North-London-neurotic manner, sent me to see an educational psychologist, who declared that half of my intelligence was rotting away as I was relying too much on memory, rather than really thinking. He said I had to do something like English, where there was less need to memorise and more scope to think for oneself, in order to get that bit of my brain working again.

So I accordingly did English A-level, instead of Economics. It was very peculiar mixing science and arts subjects. All the science lessons took place in one building, and all the arts in another, which was a good seven-minute walk away. We only had five minutes between lessons, so I was always slightly late for a class, and, as barely anybody else was in the same predicament, I was the only one who was consistently late. Anyway, I shall speed through those years … the only really important thing that happened was that I decided to apply to do English at university, rather than psychology, which had been the original plan.

I managed, despite a horrible interview, to get in to Oxford to read English and I was given a Gap year. That year was when I really started reading again. I emailed my tutor to ask for a reading list before I went off travelling, and I couldn’t believe how long it was. We were expected to cover all the Victorians in just a term, and then the Moderns in another! Not to mention all the cryptic otherworldly lines of Old English …

I took a few of the bigger Victorian tomes away with me – Middlemarch, Bleak House and the like. Luckily the classics are the easiest books to find in paperback exchange bookshops all over Asia, so I managed to get through most of them. It was a very weird experience to be reading Eliot with a torch, during a power-cut, in a village in Nepal. (I expect there will be more about that to come too …) It was a strange reversal of the escapism of reading children’s books. I was no longer leaving England and travelling to far-off lands, this time I was in the far-off land, surrounded with everything strange and unknown, and being transported back to foggy London, or England at its most bucolic.

And then there was Oxford. So much reading, so much thinking, so many hours spent in libraries. Nobody really bothered going to lectures as it seemed as though – in fact I’m pretty sure we were told in the first lecture of the first term – we were there to read, that’s why people say they’re reading English rather than studying it. Every time I went into the Bodleian, right up to the end, I still felt that thrill, an involuntary small sharp intake of breath – complete wonder at being surrounded by them all. Books then weren’t escape routes at all. They were riddled with terribly important meanings, clues to a shiny elusive truth that could only be discovered through long meandering essays.

When I left Oxford, I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. Eventually, mostly through talking to one of my older brothers, who is rather authoritative about things like jobs and CVs, I decided to go for journalism or publishing. According to him, they’re the only things an English student can really do. I did a few bits of journalism but ended up getting into publishing. I then spent two and a half years working for one of London’s biggest publishing houses.

It felt strange, and rather intrepid, to move from reading books to making them. At once they were no longer merely vessels for stories or information, but became complicated beautiful objects. They had their very own lexicon, and I soon learnt about ‘leading’, ‘endpapers’ and ‘running heads’. Things that had never occurred to me before were suddenly really of great importance – making paragraphs end neatly, not leaving just one word on its own line; being consistent with capital letters and Oxford commas; and not italicising the ‘the’ in a newspaper title, unless it’s The Times. One of the most peculiar things was having to think in sixteens, if possible in thirty-twos, to make sure that there weren’t lots of blank pages left at the end of a book, which is made up of thirty-two-page sections (perhaps with one sixteen if you really need it). One day I was taken to a printing press, to see how a document, last seen as PDF, is transformed into an actual book. Enormous sheets of paper are printed on, then folded, cut and stacked, and then the edges roughed up, glued, covers stuck on … bundles of pages in various stages of manufacture are transported around an enormous warehouse via a conveyor belt. It is a complicated and absolutely astonishing process. The strangest thing is that each book starts its life as a conjoined twin – an identical copy is glued head-to-head with it. It’s only at the very end of the process that they’re neatly spliced in two.

Books took on another transformation when I began to write one. Ideas had been oozing around my brain for a few months and then suddenly, one evening in that peculiar period between Christmas and New Year, I was in the bath (there will definitely be future discussions on the merits of baths) and bang, it had suddenly crystallised. I spent a year waking up very early, writing for an hour or so before going to work, but then, when it came to working on a second draft, I decided I couldn’t keep both things up at once. So I took a deep breath and dove out of the publishing house and into a part-time job at a bookshop, where I’m surrounded by books and have more time to write.

So I am now a bookseller, a writer, and still a reader. And it is as this bookish conglomerate that I will be writing EmilyBooks.