Writing and Publishing

Alan Sillitoe

Most of my first literary influences – if they can be called such – came from the cinema. I remember some time during the early Forties seeing a film, one of those ‘B’ pictures from Hollywood, which had for its subject the life of the great British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. The scene that comes back is during a debate in the House of Commons on some great issue, when Disraeli sat with eyes closed, seemingly asleep, while the Leader of the Opposition, probably Mr Gladstone, went through his speech. Disraeli appeared to sleep, and not to hear what his chief adversary had to say. His own speech was already prepared, and he did not care to be influenced by whatever argument might be brought against the ideas he intended to put forward. Perhaps, not so much a mark of self-assurance, it was merely a mannerism to confound his enemies, but it made an impression on me because my consciousness found such a tactic congenial. Otherwise, why remember an incident from a film of so long ago, when scores more are totally forgotten? This, I thought, as Disraeli rested with hand on chin, or lay back nonchalantly on the hard seat, is the way to deal with those who might be against me. The incident struck me because it depicted the action of an individual who had faith in himself in an age which seemed to have considered it a virtue. Not to be particularly interested in what his opponent was saying exhibited the profound conviction of his own beliefs. Did not the poet King David say: ‘Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward and put to confusion, that desire my hurt’?

Individualism, bordering on eccentricity, even to the extent of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’, has never been approved of. Occasionally held as a virtue today, everything is also put in the way to save you from its excesses – though you are expected to put any advantage accruing from such a course to the benefit of society, and behave yourself thereafter. The era of the phone-in, the 24-hour chat show, and the ongoing television interview, makes it difficult for a politician to behave in such a way as Disraeli, but it has never struck me as incongruous for a writer to do so.

Perhaps all this has little to do with my novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, except that the book happened to be my first published novel. There was some uncertainty as to whether or not the book would be published at all, and though I don’t suppose there would have been any great loss, for I feel that some novel of mine would have appeared sooner or later, the matter did seem important to me at the time. To imply that a writer’s first novel began to be worked on more or less from the time he was born may seem a very ordinary idea indeed. However that may be, I can’t go back so far, and only feel inclined to because the exercise might illuminate what I have to say later.

The cinema was not the only influence in those early days. Books certainly came in somewhere. One of the first was given to me by a teacher who was disposing of a few before moving to another school. The title was History Day by Day, a volume of exactly 732 pages, because two were devoted to each day of the year. Apart from events dealing with English history, other dates considered important concerned writers and artists. Under 4 July 1802 was recorded the birth of Alexandre Dumas. On one page was an account of his life, with a list of his best known works, while opposite was a section from The Count of Monte Cristo. By browsing through such a mishmash of fact, fiction and brief biographies I became familiar, after a fashion, with both literature and history. Extracts were taken from the most exciting part of the novel, so that I went to the public library to bring the book home and read the rest. If I had already read, by the age of ten or eleven, such classics as Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo, it was also because I had heard them serialised on the BBC – another beneficial influence of those days.

When I was 11 my grandmother persuaded me to take a scholarship examination – the equivalent of the 11-plus – for a grammar school. I suppose she had noticed my preoccupation with the books in her parlour, brought home over the years as Sunday-school prizes by her eight children. I wanted to pass ‘the scholarship’ because I knew that at grammar schools one was taught French. To know that language meant that the roads of the world would automatically open. A friend in the next street had a brother who taught him to count up to ten in French, and he passed this knowledge on to me. I bought a dictionary for sixpence, and attempted to translate sentences from the newspaper into French simply by substituting one word for another. I soon realised that something was wrong, because I could never find the French for ‘was’ and ‘should’ and ‘gone’. Not knowing that such things as verbs existed was a serious obstacle to getting very far in my studies. I failed the 11-plus twice, which proved to me once and for all that I was not cut out for education.

After the last war began, my cousins, one by one, were called up into the Army. A few months later, they came out again, one by one, and went home, and burned their uniforms in the bedroom grate. They then lived, without identity-card or ration-book or gas-mask, and went on what was known in our family as ‘night work’ – sleeping and enjoying themselves by day, and burgling by night. As a boy of 12, I was aware of what was going on, and it wasn’t long before I saw a half-column about them in the local paper when they were caught. They got 18 months apiece, and were then marched back into the Army. But after a spell in the military prison they appeared at our breakfast table one morning, wolfing bread and jam and swallowing tea. Before long, they were back on night work. By this time I was 13, and the idea came to me that perhaps one day I would write stories which concerned the adventures of my marauding cousins.

The importance of this writing task so impressed me that I bought a large bound notebook in which to put down a few vital statistics, noting my cousins’ age, weight, height, colour of hair, where they had been born, and what they wore, and their address – when they had one. I then inscribed sketches of their past lives and brief Army careers, and entered accounts of their robberies, which included the date, time and address of particular shops and offices broken into. They would visit us at knocking-off time, generally at breakfast, and regale us with stories from their black-out labours, such crucial details appearing sooner in my notebook than in the local newspaper. On being captured a second time, they gave up the game, deciding that it wasn’t worth it. I intended storing this raw material so as to write a long novel. But one day while I was at school my mother went through my things and read all that was in the book. When I came in that afternoon she clouted me over the head and said I should have more sense. She demanded to know what I thought I was doing, writing things like that. Did I want to get us all chucked in jail? I told her it was for my novel, but she took no notice of this lunatic excuse, and threw my first literary effort into the flames. Undaunted, I went to the public library, and took out a book on how to make a career as a writer. The first sentence went something like: ‘If you are reading these words without moving your lips, you too can become a writer.’

My memory is somewhat hazy, but the author went on to state that the first thing necessary, apart from pen and paper, was to get hold of a typewriter so that novels and stories could be sent off to publishers in a presentable form. When my cousins came into the house I quietly put the proposal to them that on breaking into the appropriate premises they nick one for me. I would pay them back at two bob a week when I started work, which I now knew I would have to do at the age of 14. Maybe I would even settle my debt with a lump sum when I got my first big fee for a novel. I did not let on that the substance of such a project would be based on their adventures. They waved aside my proposal and said I could have one for nothing. Perhaps my mother had mentioned my ambition, and they were tickled at the idea of having their own biographer at some future date. But they were never able to bring a typewriter. Maybe they found more portable things for the taking, and in any case didn’t want to land me in trouble. So in spite of my hope of getting a novel published at 13, or 14 at the latest, I forgot all about it till I was 20, by which time I had ceased to be part of that world.

When my mother threw those first pencil-scrawled pages into the fire it was an act of primitive censorship which I knew to be absolutely necessary. Some decision was made, however, though I can’t say this was very clear at the time, that as far as was humanly and artistically possible, I would not submit to any kind of censorship again. And yet it has always been my experience that when one says, ‘I shall never do this, or that,’ then as sure as hell you are going sooner or later to have to do it.

There are many grades of censorship, and one sort which affected me was after my third novel Key to the Door was published in 1961. I had worked on the manuscript for ten years, though only intensively in the final two. It went through many editions, is still in print, and has been translated into 12 languages. In Soviet Russia it was printed in an edition of, so I was told, two million hard-backed copies. Not that I made any spot-cash out of this. I was given a few hundred roubles as a hand-out on a couple of trips to Russia, but even with that newly-minted Monopoly money there was a limit to the kind of goods you could buy and bring back to England. Anything really desirable, like caviar or furs or golden trinkets, had to be purchased with ten-pound notes in shops which were closed to the Russian public. Being lumbered with the mighty rouble, I had access only to second-rate goods produced for the local market. Half my numerous family in Nottingham at one time had fur hats, and the other half twanged away on balalaikas, while the children threw matrioshka dolls at one another. The camera smuggled into England went bust, and the calendar-watch I returned with choked to death in six months. A tape-recording of Russian folk songs wouldn’t fit into my machine, and the effect of my vodka allowance wore off after a couple of days. The only thing of value was an enormous atlas which I brought back strapped to the luggage rack of my car. It was in any case somewhat difficult to read.

But payment was not the question, pirates and exploiters though the Russian publishers were in those days. I had thought the translation of Key to the Door contained suspiciously few pages, and one day a German research student made the book’s rendering into Russian the subject of her thesis. During the process of what the Russians called ‘translation’ it was so severely mangled that nearly a third was cut. The omitted matter was that which showed the hero to be no simple lover of socialism. Neither he nor his mates lived up to the ideal the Russians had in mind. Certain sections were excised because they did not sufficiently indicate that England was the inhuman capitalist scrap-heap they liked their readers to believe. In the Soviet version of the novel my hero – if such he was – didn’t drink, or make love, or fight with his fellow workers, or quarrel with his girlfriend, or live in anything but peace with his family. Introspection was frowned on and ripped out. Approval of his surroundings in any way was quashed. Internecine argy-bargy was against the party line. It was not deliberate distortion or actual rewriting, but judicious hacking, so that the finished work was nothing like the one I had so carefully written. The censors, concerned that the book contain nothing emotionally or politically disturbing, distorted it beyond recognition. Many works translated from the West go through a similar shredding machine, though their authors might not realise it. I find it hard to forgive those so-called translators for giving my novel the death of a thousand cuts.

The one great consolation is (and in many ways it may more than make up for all that was done against the book) that if the Russians had printed the novel as it was written, I would certainly have needed to worry about the state of my soul. The only good writing appearing from that country emerges from the prison camps. I think of Eugenia Ginzburg, Solzhenitsyn, Grigory Svirsky – and Anatoly Marchenko who is still in prison – as well as many others who, by their suffering, have kept alive the spirit of Russian literature. It is a pity when only the pinch of censorship emphasises the writer’s importance. The tightrope between genuine artistic achievement and a left-handed notoriety imposed by the state is to be avoided at all costs. In non-communist countries which have economic stability, and a secure and prosperous middle class, it is generally the case that one cannot end in prison for propagating ideas which might be considered dangerous. Chance has decided that some of us should be born here, and not there. Society is not a fragile mirror that can crack when the slightest pebble hits it. There are no dangerous ideas in a society which has the self-confidence of its secure foundations.

That would be a very pretty picture if it were true. And even if it is half-true, the writer must always be on his guard. Who was it said that English writers and journalists did not need to be censored but do a very good job themselves, thank you very much? If there is anything worse than censorship imposed by the state it is the censorship which people take on voluntarily, in the belief that everything is perfect, and that if it is not, they don’t want to be the one who rocks the boat. Not long ago, harsh rules of censorship were imposed in the production of films. Judging by the sort of thing we can see today such censorship was unnecessary. The film-script of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning made many journeys to and from the British Board of Film Censors (no British hypocrisy about the name!) before it was finally passed as fit to be made – though then only under an ‘X’ Certificate. In the novel the main female character has an abortion. In the film, the attempt could be indicated, but not shown as successful. This ruling had to be accepted, and some of the fight scenes toned down – two amendments which distorted the tenor of the film. The contract had been drawn up and signed, and the £90,000 which the film cost had already been invested, so we had to accept the cuts.

When I began writing, in 1948, I sent my stories and novels, during the next ten years, to every magazine I thought might take them, and to every publisher where I supposed I had a chance. This is not an unusual tale, and no complaint is implied. I was learning to write, and if I say that to do so took me the whole of five or six years, it is also true that I am learning yet. If the first sign of madness in a writer is when he begins to trust his publisher, an even surer indication is when he begins to trust himself, believing that what he writes is of value to anyone except himself. As far as I am concerned, it is only chance, and merely luck, that people have found interest in what I have written. Of course, I always wanted them to, while on another level writing only to satisfy myself. It was a matter of finding my own voice, which took a long time. But could it not be true that in all those years I was subconsciously absorbing what it was that the public would find acceptable – in other words, that the reason it took so long to find my own voice was because I hadn’t yet discovered the one that would bring me in some money?

When Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was finished in August 1957, after five years work on it in Majorca, I sent it to my agent in London, feeling confident that someone would want to publish. It soon began to look as if they didn’t. One publisher rejected it outright. The second, in a letter of refusal, commented that the life of the so-called working classes depicted in the book was entirely false, and needed to be rewritten bearing this in mind. (I had already rewritten it eight times.) A third reader said that if I altered the ending he would be prepared to consider it favourably. I rejected this offer, discouraged though I was. Another editor wanted me to shorten it. I hinted at a course of action he could take which would at least have enabled him to earn an honest living as a contortionist, even if his show would have been a clear case for censorship – at that time. With so many different opinions, how could I not think that only the author’s mattered?

The novel did not appear to me as anything unusual, though it was special to me. It was not a first novel. Six or seven had already gone the rounds, though I realised by now that most were not good enough to be published. The first, written in Nottingham after four years with the RAF, was over four hundred pages long, and took 17 days to write. What it lacked in technique was made up for in energy and verbosity. I used ten adjectives where one would do, employed the same word many times on one page, repeated myself, started the hero with brown eyes and fair hair, and changed these, quite unknowingly, to fair eyes and brown hair by the 40th page. I lost track of the plot. Someone killed stone-dead early on by a lorry would turn up alive on page 100. The chaotic story was only brought to order when, in the end, everybody died. It was a vainglorious mishmash of Dostoevsky, Lawrence and Huxley – to name but a few. With the temerity of youthful unconsciousness I sent the typescript to Eyre and Spottiswoode (I think it was), who had announced a competition for new novels. It came back without comment.

After active service with the RAF in Malaya I was invalided out, and given a pension on which it was possible to live in France and Spain. Every month the King, and then the Queen, sent money so that I could go on writing my novels. Being a remittance man was an agreeable kind of life. I had no qualms about being kept. When I showed Robert Graves, who still lives in Majorca, one of those early novels, he was encouraging enough to say that he found it interesting, but added: ‘Since you come from Nottingham, why don’t you write a novel about that?’

I had already written stories set there, and a few months later began putting together something called ‘The Adventures of Arthur Seaton’. I sent the first chapter to various magazines but, like everything else, it kept bouncing back – like a rubber ball from a concrete wall. The novel which I had finished before starting ‘Arthur Seaton’ was called ‘The Palisade’, and I thought this had a good chance of being published. I reread it recently, and think I was right. The tale was based on a true one I’d heard while in an RAF hospital after coming back from Malaya. But in 1956, when I sent the book out, the chief editor said that while he liked it, he found it hard to believe that a nurse in a hospital would desert the WAAF and go away with one of the patients. What kind of a life had he lived, to imagine that this could never have happened? Perhaps, after all, the novel was no good, but I’m sure he knew very well that such things went on. It would be paranoid, of course, to call that censorship. It was a matter of opinion, and nothing else. Maybe if I had sent the novel out often enough, someone would have taken a chance. But it is futile to speculate. Perhaps publishers in those far-off days imagined they had a duty to society: certain things may happen, but you did not write about them.

These days I get the impression that publishers have a duty above all to their accountants, and are simply a mechanism on the continual look-out for a best-seller – which is perhaps another way of fulfilling their duty to society. Things alter, but in many ways stay the same. In the first case, they were hypocrites: in the second, realists. The two states of mind often overlap, and it would be a foolish writer who thought he could differentiate between them. I know, however, that if I had the choice of trying to get a first novel published today, as opposed to 1958, I would choose the earlier date. The first novel, which we feel was the hardest of all to write, gets more and more to seem the easiest as life goes on. And as for the trouble in finding a publisher, that too quickly fades away.

After six years in Europe I came back to London, and saw my agent who, while acknowledging that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ought to be published, advised me to put it away and write something else, since the novel had been out five times already. If a manuscript keeps bouncing back, it is just as natural for the agent to get discouraged. The writer may think he knows best, but the agent sooner or later begins to think that publishers know best of all. Against such a consensus the author cannot win. All that is left is obstinacy and faith. But my agent said that the novel had gone to W.H. Allen, as a kind of final gesture. Had it been returned by them, I wonder if I would have put it in the drawer with those other typescripts which are still there?

I had already written a short story called ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and sent it out several times, but it was always returned without comment. Other stories which were to appear in the volume of that name had been sent out over the previous ten years and rejected, yet when the book was published each story got favourable comments in the reviews. They have since been anthologised many times, and taught in schools, and I gave up trying to compute the sales of the paperback when they went above eight million.

Previous experience had led me to expect that out of those first two books I would be lucky if I made a modest few hundred pounds on which I could go back to Majorca and live another couple of years while writing something else. I had formed the opinion that the ideal state for a writer was that of an exile. Having spent eight years between the ages of 19 and 30 out of the country, and looking forward to many more, I was amused when reviewers and journalists referred to me as a ‘working-class’ novelist. In spite of the stage on which I set many of my novels and stories I had ceased to be connected to that part of life from the moment I enlisted in the RAF. Before that time I hadn’t heard the phrase, and wouldn’t have known what it meant. Then when I became a writer I simply did what any other novelist does, which is to use the first 18 years of his or her life in order to begin writing novels and stories. From that point on, publishers would always be expecting me to write another Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but it was not my intention to do so. One only repeats oneself to the extent that much of one’s subsequent work comes out of the first novel. It would have been easy for me to have written ‘Monday Night and Tuesday Morning’, however, and perhaps even ‘Wednesday Night and Thursday Morning’. No doubt I could still do it, though at this late stage it seems unlikely.

The fact remains that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a first novel, a minor affair, in view of all that I have written since. It was not a breakthrough as much as a break-in. To break and enter is far better than breaking right through and having little or nothing to show for it. I liken it to the bridgehead which a landing force makes on a fortified shore, in that it was touch and go whether or not it would succeed. Fortunately, the novel served its purpose, especially when reinforced by a dozen other books from which I still derive an income – the gilt-edged securities, as John Osborne calls them. Once you know how to write, it is not difficult to make money. A certain facility develops. One has a notebook full of ideas, but they are not to be used as a timetable. They emerge in their own good time, usually after a long soak in the subconscious, sometimes as long as ten or twenty years after being first noted down. In this sense, a writer has to work as if he is going to live for ever. An experience may re-create itself after so long a lapse that you no longer know whether you have lived or imagined it. I occasionally find difficulty in saying whether or not I have actually met the people in my novels.

Writing is not a matter of success. If you obtain some financial reward you are lucky, and doubly fortunate that people want to read what you write. At the same time it is as well to remind yourself that to sell many copies is no mark of excellence, and that to sell very few is no sign of failure. This is not to say that a bestseller need be a poor work of literature, or a book you have printed yourself a work of unrecognised genius. Only time will tell, if ever it is allowed to. Nor is it wrong to write for money. Great writers have, while those who have tried but earned nothing can console themselves by the number of writers who have died penniless – a much shorter list, I might add. Best-sellerdom is just around the corner, but it is an illusory trail to follow. I am not suggesting anybody does. Grub Street, however, is there for every writer, though these days you have to be quick, and make sure you have a driving licence, because it has turned into a motorway. The writer who will have none of this, who believes that he has something to say, can only console himself by realising that in practising his art he is alone. After learning what he can from world literature, and then perhaps forgetting the lessons he has imbibed so that he can integrate the peculiar one that is his own, he has to eschew all fashion, and listen only to himself.

I am occasionally asked, not who is my publisher, but who is my editor, and I have to tell the truth and say that I do not have one. This response evokes some surprise, much as if one heard of a pop star without a manager, or of an aircraft having been developed without going through the hands of a test pilot. If you need an editor, how can you be a writer? If you publish a book under your own name, how can you claim the credit, or otherwise, of having written it if you and an editor have produced it together? I realise that editors have to live. They are amiable and perhaps creative people who only want to help. Publishers employ them. They pay them, quite well, I hope, and expect results. And publishers rightly only want novels which have a chance of selling. If an author pursues the course of working alone, he cannot expect an easy ride. To accept a novel, and print it without editors smoothing it for what they think is the delectation of the public, requires an act of faith from a publisher, often loyalty. Relationships built up on such a process cannot always be smooth. With editors as the publishers’ watchdogs, what chance is there of any deviation from the norm, any interesting vagary, any sideswipe of experimentation, indeed any of the mistakes or flaws which in fact, though not necessarily noticable by the so-called general public, form a signpost to the author’s future work? What one editor will like, another will dislike, so that the writer’s opinion as to the content or excellence of his work is the only one that is important. I wonder what fun an editor would have today with, say, Jude the Obscure or Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Point Counter Point? – or almost any novel you care to mention. One person’s thumbs-up is another’s anathema.

Whether or not the publisher wants to accept a manuscript is not a question of judgment – as far as the writer is concerned – but a matter of fate. An author should either continue to send out the novel, or write something else – or both. Fortunately, there are many publishers, an illusion of freedom which in fact becomes reality, for as long as a book gets into print there is generally no great difference between one publisher and the next. Up to 1965 my publisher in the United States had been Alfred Knopf, an excellent house. One day I had lunch with their editor-in-chief, who asked my opinion on alterations being made to my next novel A Tree on Fire. In as polite a way as possible, for I was his guest, I told him that it was not the kind of thing I allowed to be done to my work. Each and every book had been put through many drafts so that, apart from the inevitable typing errors, nothing was to be adjusted, amended, or altered in any way. A few weeks later I heard that he had turned down the novel, a move which was not unexpected. The book was then published elsewhere. Such decisions are not easy for the writer. Nor are they hot-headedly taken. One is not so single-minded as to lose sight of the money and publication that may be sacrificed. But a writer should keep free of fashion, must rinse out all influences, and have nothing to do with those rewriters who think that God has blessed them with the knowledge as to what the public want.

A writer must also ignore reviews when they come, and realise that he is on his own. It is instructive to browse through those publishers’ catalogues that used to be appended to volumes at the turn of the century. I quote the reviewer: ‘A really great book’. ‘One of the most remarkable achievements of this generation’. ‘A strong wise book of deep insight and unflinching truth’. ‘An able and attractive piece of work’. The first two quotations concern a novel, perhaps a best-seller, by Emily Lawless. The third describes a book by J.H. Findlater, while the fourth is from a review of The Soft Side by Henry James.

Good writing is something you can only teach yourself. I also believe, and if I am old-fashioned in this then so be it, that the writer knows best. He always did. If he didn’t, or doesn’t, nothing interesting will be published. A writer ought not to surrender without a fight to the onslaught of the media, or give in without a struggle to the sail-trimming of publishers who want fashionable middlebrow best-sellers, or the egotistical fancies of editors who think that what the public or the reviewers want is what they themselves want. If literature continues to be emasculated in this way – and I use the word ‘literature’ in the full sense of what the word means – who is going to be thanked when literature disappears? There will certainly be no one left to condemn. Writing is the one activity where the individual is supreme – or he is not – but he stands no chance of achieving anything if, somewhere along the line, he lets his individuality be infringed. Whatever talent he has can only be protected by his integrity, and integrity can only be maintained by the solitary and lonely protection of his individuality. Art only ever comes out of a single creative mind. It is easy to see, right from the outset, that there is no more lonely occupation than that of writer – something which I find is one of its greatest consolations.