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...