When I set out to write The Birth Machine, was my chief aim to address the issue of hi-tech childbirth and to set the profession of Obstetrics to rights? Of course not. The Birth Machine was simply the next in a series of stories I wanted to tell simply because once they'd hatched in my brain they moved and obsessed me enough to want to explore them and get them down on paper. (Previously all my pieces had been short stories). My main impulse always is to explore and convey the feeling and ideas that any situation and story suggest to me.
But then of course certain situations inevitably carry with them specific issues, and in this particular case the issue - hi-tech childbirth - has been highly politicised. And naturally, in exploring the situation, while my chief concerns were the wider issues (and my constant themes) of power and language and story-telling, the novel was bound to make comment on the more specific issue. And personally, I did feel that there were issues about hi-tech childbirth that needed to be addressed, and that was bound to find expression in the novel. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, yes, I'd have liked it if Obstetricians had read the book and it made them think... But it's those wider issues, and in particular the mode of telling, that were my chief concern, and while the book's first publisher (The Women's Press) was certainly political (and indeed edited the book for political purposes) they nevertheless pushed the book not simply as a polemic but as a literary work - for the writing.
Still, actually, nowadays you'd be crazy, wouldn't you, to ignore the marketing possibilities of an issue - the fact that an issue can widen your market beyond the usual literary one? So when the book was reissued recently, I and my publisher Salt set about contacting birth groups (which didn't in fact exist, even, when the book was first published) and, lo and behold, we had a fantastic interested response.
But. Today on Goodreads I discovered that a member involved in natural childbirth and drawn to the book for its 'issue', and whose usual fiction tastes clearly run to very different kinds of books such as Harry Potter, says that while she's sympathetic to the book's ideas, she found the story too chaotic and 'undone' to make any sense, and gives it one star only (which means 'I didn't like it') and says roundly that she will not be recommending it to her students (I presume they are childbirth students, but a casual glancer might assume otherwise). Clearly, the book was never meant for this reader and vice versa. But now that one star is out there to influence others (and it's also on Google!). Hm.
Would we have been better in our marketing to stick to a more 'literary' constituency, do you think?