A Warning Against Originality
Somebody asked me the other day if ‘Plastic’ was ever published. I explained that it was a few years ago and is now an e-book too, so this piece is about the effort that went into the attempt to create a short, unclassifiable novel.
I had grown up in the sixties surrounded by strange experimental books from the likes of Brigid Brophy and BS Johnson. These were my touchstones, not Austen and Brontë. Being able to read literature as well as pulps doesn’t mean you have to prefer it. I wanted to write something accessible but original enough not to have a pigeonhole on any bookshelf.
‘Plastic’ had many titles. ‘Wife Or Death’, ‘Wed & Buried’, ‘Married Alive’ among them. I chose the story of a vulnerable wife whose marriage collapses, who undergoes a trial by fire and emerges a different person. I also wanted it to be scary and funny in equal amounts. And it was to be set in London over one weekend. So I invented a new crossover genre, a dark, funny, female-led, noir crime mystery.
It turns out that’s not a genre. Warning to writers; don’t try this at home. Stick to things that already exist if you want to sell any copies.
I finished this labour of love and sent it to my agent, who loved it so much that she held an auction. But the readers’ reports were so different that there was never a clear winner. Everyone said, ‘this is unique, but there’s no place for it on our lists’, so we reluctantly set the book aside. I couldn’t see how to amend it for any publisher. I wasn’t being precious but practical. I’d rewritten and rewritten, but to change it completely and then resubmit it as a different novel?
This, I must stress, was not ‘literature’, it was an entertainment. Nothing important or special in publishing terms (i.e. cheap for them to invest in), just a nice story about female empowerment written by a man.
The book took six long years to get published. By this time it had been around so long that parts of it started turning up online. One lovely, over-enthusiastic Canadian publisher actually printed up some finished copies of the book before signing a deal. The pirated parts got mentions in the press. It was photocopied in publishers’ offices, even as it became known as ‘the novel that couldn’t be published’. It was championed by other writers. Thanks to them and to fans who had read sections, ‘Plastic’ is one of the few books that got glowing reviews before it was printed.
Here’s an extract from Joanne Harris unsolicited foreword (she very kindly wrote it to see if it would help me sell it);
‘Every year, a million books never see publication. Some are rightly ignored; some die; some are just not saleable enough. Some receive rave rejections before being thrown onto the trash pile. And sometimes one splendid, heroic book fights its way to the top of that pile, bites its thumb at the corporate, commercial world of publishing and announces to the world at large: Read me, or else.
Plastic is one of these. I was lucky enough to read it in manuscript form some seven or eight years ago. From the first page I was hooked. Dark, compassionate, violent, wise and wittily razor-edged – if Quentin Tarantino had decided to collaborate with Alan Bennett to rewrite Bridget Jones’ Diary, then surely the script would have been something like this. I already knew the author to be the master of urban unease, but to me this new novel went further still. I loved it, raved about it to everyone I knew and assumed that it would just be a matter of time before it became a bestseller.
In a world where credit rules supreme, where images of unattainable perfection are held up to women as, not only achievable, but absolutely necessary, where nobody looks beyond the surface, where to be on TV is everyone’s fantasy and where the acquisition of yet another handbag, yet another pair of shoes, might hold the key to happiness, Plastic has an uncanny resonance. The heroine, June Cryer, whose description of herself as ‘a dead housewife’ comes frighteningly close to home, is the existential Everywoman of the consumer generation. Unloved, unhappy, overweight, she is filled with confusion about the world around her; about her husband, who is leaving her; about the dreams she used to have.
However, in spite of all this, the publishing world was not convinced. Whilst admitting the book was terrific (I don’t think any manuscript has ever been so widely – and furtively – read in-house), editor after editor pronounced it “tricky to sell”. A thriller about shopping, narrated by a housewife? From Sophie Kinsella, from Kathy Lette – from any female writer, in fact – it would have been acceptable. But from Christopher Fowler? Tricky.
And so Plastic continued to circulate under a series of different titles, acquiring converts wherever it went like some literary underworld movement – a secret Campaign for Real Fiction. Finally, here it is, in all its subversive glory.’
‘Plastic’ and ‘Calabash’ remain my least successful books. They also remain my favourites.