Friday, March 19, 2010

The history of The Birth Machine

I'm very pleased indeed that in October my first novel, The Birth Machine, will be reissued by Salt.

The Birth Machine has a complicated, even scandalous, publishing history. When it was first published, it sold out of its 3,000 first print run and ended up being studied on university courses and dramatised for radio, but it was not reprinted, and in fact, it nearly didn't get published in the first place - all because the publishers decided that they had maybe made a mistake in agreeing to publish, as I - yes, little old me! - was too scandalous, indeed wicked, a person!

But let me go back a bit (all will become clear) and tell you about the book. Anyone who knows my work will know that one of my main concerns is the manipulation of power - both personal and political - and with telling the stories that tend to get submerged as a result, the stories and viewpoints of the less powerful and the silenced. The Birth Machine concerns a woman about to give birth who finds herself silenced (and her subjective experience discounted) by not just the system and apparatus of the medical profession, but above all by its language and logic - which indeed to some extent she has internalized. For me above all it's a novel about language, and scientific logic and the competing power of dreams and myth and intuition. The protagonist Zelda also has a buried secret, and the novel is also about the silencing power of repression.

I knew of course that it was a 'feminist' novel, but I have to say I was a bit shocked when my lovely first, male agent sent it off in all confidence to mainstream publishers only to be told that the novel was really 'too strange' - dealing with a subject not considered fit for fiction at the time. In the end, it was The Women's Press who took it up - with alacrity - as a groundbreaking book which dealt with a subject previously unexplored in fiction.

Well, of course I was ecstatic. It was a matter of only days later that I got a call from the publisher sounding grave. A scandal was occurring in the Women's Movement: a story published in an anthology by another feminist press had turned out to be written by a man. Maybe nowadays it's hard to understand why that would be a scandal, and the deep sense of violation that that feminist press felt at the time, but among feminists then there was a very strong sense of the need to carve a space for women away from the domination of men, and, I think, looking back, a sense of vulnerablity. Anyway, here was the thing: that man, they had discovered, was John, the man with whom I had recently begun a relationship! So how, they asked, could they know that I hadn't colluded in helping him to send in that story incognito? (I didn't.) How did they know he hadn't written The Birth Machine for me?

Well, at this point one could laugh - for the question can be asked: if a man can write so convincingly from the viewpoint of a woman as to cause a feminist press to fail to guess his gender, then is he after all quite the enemy from whom they need to be protected? But I'm afraid at that time no one was laughing. The feminist publishers of the anthology felt violated and betrayed, John was staggered and dismayed by the effects of his well-intentioned experiment, and my own publishers were no longer sure that they could publish me, someone who had so potentially 'alienated their market'. (Here's another laugh: the anthology publishers didn't believe me that I hadn't colluded and held me, and not John, responsible.)

Well, in the end, my publisher went ahead, but only after I had issued an 'apology' in the underground feminist press - this really went against the grain, but my main priority was not having The Birth Machine silenced. (My agent had said I should write to the newspapers, but I decided I couldn't do that to the feminist publishers who had explicitly stated to me that if it got out then everything they had ever worked for would be ruined). But things were never easy between The Women's Press and me. The rumour of my collusion didn't die: every so often I would receive what I can only call poison-pen letters from anonymous 'feminists', and the Women's Press and I finally parted company (and I withdrew my next novel from them), when someone 'reported' untruths about me to them, and they gravely and worriedly asked me to account for myself.

And as for The Birth Machine itself: well, when it was revealed during the furore that they had a market I could alienate I was dismayed. I hadn't written The Birth Machine solely for women (and certainly not just for the small London-based sector of women who would know about the scandal); indeed, it seems to me that if you have a point to make about oppression the people you need to reach and convince are the oppressors: you need to make them see and feel the effects of their oppression, and thus potentially change their minds. I would go so far as to say (a heresy, of course, to those women) that it was more important to me that men read the book than women (who didn't need to be convinced). For this reason I had started the novel with the male Professor of Obstetrics out in the world giving a lecture, the idea being to circle in slowly from there, luring the reader in, to the subjective experience of the confined woman.

However, the Women's Press, whose target market turned out to be solely women, and whose mission turned out to be more political than literary, ie that of validating women's experience, wanted the novel edited so that it began with the woman, allowing women readers to identify. In the aftermath of the scandal - and with the Women's Press having already shown themselves prepared to ditch the project - I felt in no position to argue.

But I was never happy with the version they published; in my view it made of it a different novel from the one I had written. Later I published a short run of my own - The Author's Cut - with my original structure restored and including a note on the political-literary implications of the changes, but I never had the time or resources to market it in any big way.

And then last October, out of the blue, Salt suggested reissuing this second/original version, and it will be published in October. I'm sure you can guess how thrilled I am. If I thought before that Salt were my heroes, I kind of feel now that they're actually my saviours...

33 comments:

Rachel Carter said...

Sounds like a very interesting read and I look forward to it. I have experience - as recently as 2005 - of a dominating (male!) obstetrician when I was 35 and expecting my third child.

Tania Hershman said...

Wow, I am speechless. It's an astonishing story - your book about power and silence ends up being perverted and in many ways silenced by the very ones who would claim they are for freedom of expression - of women, at least. Ah, the irony. It must have been both bewildering and very painful for you at the time. I am deeply dismayed about this business with John and the anthology, and you being blamed. I really am speechless. But SO glad that TBM, the Author's Cut (!) will finally be published properly, as it deserves! Looking forward to reading it. Wow.

Elizabeth Baines said...

So it's still relevant, Rachel!

Tania, it was a real nightmare - happening right at the start of my literary career - and I must say I was pretty ill with it all. The worst thing was that writing was the way I considered I had saved myself and found freedom not to have to be what others wanted me to be! And my whole future as a writer seemed threatened - and was certainly held back for a bit (I lost my agent over the final fracas - stupidly sacked him because he understandably didn't really understand what was going on). A good lesson, though, in the ways of he world!

Andrew Philip said...

It certainly is an astonishing story. It has so much in itself to say about power and the subtle ways it corrupts our interactions; about the nature and dangers of movements, even necessary ones. And that's even before we get to read the novel! Even if things are very different now in many ways, it's still deeply relevant.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Andrew, it is a very interestng lesson n the nature of movements - though I have to say I did rather have a sense of deja vue and as if I were walking through the pages of Animal Farm...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Woops, spelt that wrongly: deja vu!

Kate Brown said...

Quite a story. Very much looking forward to reading the Author's Cut. Good luck!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Kate!

SM said...

What an extraordinary story! Congratulations on having your novel reissued. Looking forward to reading it.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Suzanne!

BarbaraS said...

What a fascinating insight into the background of your first novel. A shame that it got hijacked by a political agenda, which had nothing to do with its literary merits; and which by all accounts made you out to be a scapegoat for something which really was irrelevant.

Your story reminds me of a friend whose husband was a recovering alcoholic: when she wanted to go away all her husband's female relatives held her accountable for her husband's behaviour, whilst she was away! Women are unbelieveably hard on their own kind sometimes, and for what?

Lovely to hear that your own writing story has such a wonderful outcome now; and yes I see the irony too.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Barbara. And yes, many ironies.

Michelle said...

Congratulations, Elizabeth. Looking forward to hearing more about The Birth Machine and seeing it on the shelves.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Michelle!

SueG said...

Maybe there is some good in the fact that I find this absolutely unbelievable and outrageous. I have always identified myself with the feminist movement, since way back in the 70's. But I have also seen how the politics can undermine all the good work they mean to do,not to mention the pain that women, in the name of politics and the movement, can and have inflicted on each other. Bravo to you for persevering with this book and your others in the face of this. And Bravo to Salt for realizing the time is right to give TBM the airing it clearly deserves. I'm thrilled for you.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Sue. Yes, you're right, there was, ironcally, a lot of pain involved for some in the women's movement!

Alan Beard said...

very strange story. I remember the furore over the man-posing-as-a-woman writing a story. I must say at that time I was for the women's press, thought it was scandalous that a man should do such a thing. I was so politically correct. Now I realise this rigidity of outlook is self defeating.
Anyway congrats on getting it re-released in the proper version. I'll look out for it.
Alan

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Alan.

Was it this story, or the one concerning Virago you knew about? Very soon after, one of Virago's published novels turned out to have been written by a male vicar: that did hit the headlines, and the book was pulped. I have to say that other male writers have told me since that they did the same thing - not least the great late EA Markham - but most were ever exposed. I think it's a question of what you think literature is and what it's for... Well, I won't write an essay on that now, as I have a novel to get going on...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Never exposed, I meant.

Ailsa Cox said...

Add my voice to the chorus - can't wait to read TBM again.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Ailsa!

Alan Beard said...

Ah I think it was the vicar. Btw it's great to hear of someone who likes EA Markham - I loved his Tindal Street trilogy (see my review on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6192750-three-suitors-of-fred-belair-the

I didn't know he wrote as a woman.
Best, Alan

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, he told me that he wrote as blonde white woman - because he couldn't get his piece published as a black man! It was both a literary hoax, and a serious point about racism, but it did cut across the women-only space issue. He was making the serious point about trusting the tale and not the teller/the life of the author, something that's rather gone by the board in these days of celebrity culture!

erin said...

Elizabeth - wanted to let you know I am studying your book for my PhD dissertation (on birth narratives and monstrosity). I hope to publish and get your work a bit more press in the academic echelons! Thank you for a fascinating, relevant read!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Erin, I am delighted - and very much hope you do publish, as your dissertation sounds extremely interesting!

Nicola Morgan said...

Wow! Like Tania and others, I'm speechless. Well done, thank you and very good luck.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Nicola!

Koala Bear Writer said...

Interesting story of a novel! I'm going to have to look it up, as I'm quite interested in birth experiences and how women are treated by doctors/hospitals during birth.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Koala: I hope you find it interesting!

Julia Crouch said...

Back in the day, when I was travelling, I went to visit some women I met in France. They wouldn't let my companions, a lovely male friend and his male dog in the house, purely because of their gender. They had to sit outside while I went in and had tea and cake (I said he was lovely). That's how crazy it was back then. It's great to hear that your book is being re-released.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yup, Julia: I had small sons who were welcome at women's group meetings until suddenly the eldest reached his 10th birthday. He was so very hurt - and I was really worried that it would make him anti-women. It didn't, but I do think that if I'd handled it differently, or maybe if he hadn't been such a bright child, it could have done...

Jane Smith said...

Elizabeth, what an amazing story. But it brings back all sorts of echoes for me. I can remember hearing about one of the feminist presses publishing a book written by a man, and I can remember thinking how fascinating and bizarre it was that they reacted so hotly to the discovery: I can't remember if it was the WP anthology or the Virago book mentioned here, but at the time I thought the reaction was such a missed opportunity to explore the issudes of gender and creativity.

And oh! Archie Markham! I took my MA in writing at Sheffield Hallam where he was professor, and course leader: I was lucky enough to be tutored by him for some time. He was an incredibly gifted, generous and insightful man and I miss him every day.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Jane, it does raise enormously interesting and important issues about gender and creativity, and the purpose of fiction.

And yes, Archie is certainly greatly missed...