To publish unpublishable books, look to your readers

An author always writes the book she wants to read. So my short story collection, Bad Romance, was intended for women like me. Now, every time I get a letter from a beautiful creature who loved it, I keep her words with me. Because I know I’ll need them to sustain me the next time I try to publish a book. For me, they prove – so deliciously – that my audience does exist when everyone in the publishing industry insists it does not.

I wrote my first tale, Julia’s Baby, when seized by the black urge to pull apart a white wedding. The second story, Goddess Sequence, came to me when I was drunk and wishing to revenge myself against a man who had not so much broken my heart as torn it out and stamped on it. Both stories turned out old fashioned peculiarly English things – like the twisted tales of Dahl, Saki and Waugh. My first reader, my friend Sarah, laughed at them, wanted more… I wrote on…

I did not know short stories did not sell. Above all, I’m aware of a reader and aware of their previous commercial successes. In the 1920s, the most popular writer in the Soviet Union was a short story writer called Mikhail Zoshchenko who described how incredibly shit it was to live in the Soviet Union. Dark but very, very funny…

So here we are, I thought, in the 21st century, with more single people alive than at any point in history, and the last heroine properly poking fun at how we live now – still Bridget Jones (who is married with a baby now…)

To live in a city like London today is to experience daily struggles undelineated and uninterrogated by memoir writers (who by definition write about themselves) and literary novels which – Rose Tremain recently pointed out – prove almost impossible to finish. I try not to sound bitter but sometimes it’s hard. All I’ve had from those in charge are rejection slips which you’re just expected to take – and are as Isaac Asimov once said – ‘like lacerations to the soul.’

Without readers, Bad Romance would still be languishing in a drawer somewhere. But then, after years of failing to get an agent, I was put in touch with an undeniably brilliant one by a friend and this lady arranged for me to meet Katy Guest, projects editor at the crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

I was excited to meet Guest because she was the last ever literary editor of the Independent on Sunday and her opinion mattered to me dearly. She was the first person with any power to tell me she loved my stories and thought if we could just get enough readers to believe in Bad Romance, the critics would love it too.

I had no idea how hard it would be to beg readers to pay upfront for a book that did not exist. But I was lucky that Julia’s Baby had by then been published in The Spectator so I had evidence of what we could achieve together. Thanks to 300 plus book-mad individuals, we managed to raise the cash we needed within 90 days.

Bad Romance finally appeared this February 8th. Julie Burchill read it, loved it, wrote a rave review. Called me ‘the Saki of sex’. Volunteered the tagline: ‘Bad Romance makes Girls look like Little Women.’ In publication week, it was flagged up on the front cover of ES Magazine and Grazia. Press is a hard thing to get for books and I thought all the attention would demonstrate there was a mass market for my work. It didn’t. Now I watch as books launched with equal – or less – aplomb, succeed as Bad Romance sinks into obscurity.

But then another reader got on her white charger – Alice-Azania Jarvis, features director of ES Magazine, and the master interviewer behind a salon at The Ned whose guests have included everyone from Elizabeth Day to Otegha Uwagba. Those in the know, think hers is the most compelling chat you can get in London and the waiting list to get in is getting about as long as Givenchy’s in the Markle aftermath…

I was so lucky, she had me as a guest, for in the audience, there happened to be another Alice – a Ms. Revel, the book-loving entrepreneur behind Reading In Heels (FutureBook BookTech Company of Year Finalist 2017) which ships out 2000 copies of books she loves to a rapidly expanding horde of readers every month. She asked if we might produce a special paperback edition for her purposes. And as radicals, she and Unbound agreed terms. The book will be shipped out next week.

‘From our point of view, it’s a really exciting move,’ Revel explains. ‘Eventually… as our membership increases, we could potentially fund publication of the writers that our customers want to read. Not just the ones available to us thanks to the big publishers and their schedules…’

To me, every reader who loves my work is a hero and I dearly hope the Reading In Heels girls will become my heroines too… If somehow, in spite of everything, they contrive to make Bad Romance a success, it’ll be thanks to readers, readers and readers alone.

The hidden, horrifying costs of being single

The Guardian – 5th September 2018

Ordinarily, we like to scare the bejesus out of our youth, in the hope they’ll turn out even more boring and compliant than we are. (“Sex’ll give you gonorrhoea. Drugs’ll kill you. Rock’n’roll died with Amy Winehouse – here’s Ed Sheeran!”) And there’s another kind of aberrant behaviour that society wants to prevent. Kids be warned – we’ve made singledom appallingly expensive!

According to research carried out by the Good Housekeeping Institute, “being single carries a price penalty of at least £2,000 a year per individual”. Totting up the figures, I beg to differ. That is a conservative estimate.

First, the government is intent on creating an anti-single state. The most egregious example of this is council tax: on average – in a band D home – you must pay £835 per person if you are married, and a whopping £1,235 if you live on your lonesome. Tory governments, usually so in favour of cutting taxes no matter the social cost, just love keeping them high for singletons. Is it fair to financially punish those who have failed to find true and lasting love?

Our gym memberships are more expensive, our wills are more expensive, even our single person-sized milk cartons are, you guessed it, more expensive. And that’s without examining all the small print. On holiday, we pay extra to sleep alone, fly alone and eat alone.

Then there’s the issue of insurance premiums. “According to insurers, I’d be a better driver tomorrow if I got hitched today,” the financial journalist Emma Lunn has complained. “You can put it to the test by comparing quotes with identical details except marital status.”

Even on a train journey we’re fleeced more offensively for the sub-standard service. The “Two Together” railcard entitles anyone who has someone to hold hands with to a third off off-peak fares. No, there’s nothing to stop two friends buying one together – but how many of us singletons spend every weekend away with the same friend? Why do we get charged more per person by gyms and the National Trust for membership than couples taking out a joint membership?

Of course, things could be worse. We might be living in America. A 2013 survey of the costs of being single found that, factoring in the price of healthcare, “over a lifetime, unmarried women can pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts”. No wonder that every time Beyoncé sings about single ladies the chorus consists of a load of “uh-oh’s”.

Some might argue we shouldn’t worry about the single premium: we’ll all be cajoled into marriage at some point and so rid ourselves of it eventually. But, as Rebecca Traister pointed out in her book All the Single Ladies, there are more unmarried women alive today than at any point in history – and we’re a powerful demographic.

If a woman is single past a certain age, society heaps all the blame – for blame is what it insists on heaping – on her. The birth rate is said to be falling not because many men don’t want to commit but because women are too busy or too picky or too high-powered and put off having children.

Actually, my single friends and I have invested heavily in trying to find a partner we love who loves us so much we become pregnant. On top of all our other single-centric outgoings, according to Match.com we spend on average £1,280 a year on dates (mine have been utterly parlous). I’ve been searching for love since Tinder was invented and all I have to show for it is the lousy state of my bank account. Along with my best friends, I’m fretting about how to have children if conditions don’t improve on the love front. And yes, a single woman’s fertility treatment will cost her twice as much as if she were going through it with a partner.

In the meantime, we’ve also spent a fortune celebrating everyone else’s happinesses – buying house-warming gifts, engagement presents, splurging on hen dos, weddings, christenings. Once, I found a card in a shop that read: “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.” And I wish I’d punched the air and borne it home because it’s the closest any cultural artefact has come to celebrating me and my life choices (aside from a book that I wrote myself).

And we’re not just made poorer financially – we’re all but bankrupt culturally. In the 90s, there was Kim Cattrall vamping it up on HBO proving we weren’t sadsacks; now the closest thing we have to a standard bearer for our generation is Fleabag, and who would want to be her?

If you’re past a certain age, everyone expects you to be married with children and if you’re not, complete strangers will demand to know why. Staying single is presented as petrifying on all fronts. The crippling price of remaining so is only one – significant – part of it.

What Would Bridget Do?

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When I was young, I thought Bridget Jones was a joke. Ha, ha, I thought, what a load of bollocks, as she chain-smoked her way into Colin Firth’s boxers. But ever since I turned 30, to my horror I realise it is all true – with added déjà vu – because it is all happening, right now, to me.

Every man you meet is an emotional fuckwit. (If they were ever in the mood for love, they’re taken already.) Your boss will try to sleep with you. (And you lose your job afterwards.) Old friends, post the Pinterest perfect wedding, at which you got unacceptably drunk, are now smug marrieds and treat you as if you have a disease you might transmit to their husbands. You spend the whole Christmas period having to explain to everyone back home why you are still single – as if it is your fault and you have done it on purpose to spite them. And in reply, you never have come up with a line better than there are so many single girls nowadays ‘because beneath our clothes, our bodies are completely covered with scales.’

The only difference between Bridget and I, really, is that Bridget had hope whereas I can’t recognise the meaning of the word. If you’re single, aged 35, everyone seems to think you haven’t tried hard enough. Whereas what you’ve done is tried so hard for so very long you’d rather curl up and die than face a date with yet another Tits-Pervert.

Sometimes, when I’ve cracked open the prosecco at 3pm on a Tuesday, I get to thinking I might cheer myself up by buying that card they used to have in Scribbler which reads: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.’ That could be my motto. Why does no one recognise this as a signature achievement? Akin to being crowned runner-up in the Great British Bake Off. Or winning bronze in a bout of synchronised swimming.

It seems as if, every week, I lose another comrade to pregnancy. You’ve always shared everything so now she’s holding forth on the state of her discharge, intent on becoming a baby-making machine for 2019, and limbering up to breastfeed in public with great gusto. She gained a ‘hubby’ and lost all sense of proportion. Soon, she’ll stop speaking to you. Because you stop calling her. You’re so grossed out by the updates on the ‘quality’ of her cervical mucus. 

Yes, you like babies too. But have no means of begetting them. And seized by that strange lust, feel a desperate urge to smoke. When you’re so asthmatic that’d be suicide. You keep wanting to write to Helen Fielding and demand: What Would Bridget Do? For it is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Darcy is nowhere to be found on dating apps – so what on earth…?

I need such advice because the worst thing about being the reincarnation of Bridget Jones is feeling so alone. Socially – and culturally too. We have no single icons – save Fleabag – who is the married person’s wet dream of what single girls really are, underneath (so desperate and demented they’d do anything up to and including fucking their BFF’s man.) And Lena Dunham – who, I maintain, despite many howls to the contrary, just isn’t funny. And I read the whole of ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ so I know what I am talking about. It was no doubt Lena, and all her indepth accounts of the inner frothings of her vagina, that created the fashion for such grotesque confessions.

Yuck, I grimace, with a savage shudder. In 2019, we still single bastards need a new Bridget for the Tinder age. And so perhaps it is time to imitate her real achievement: consoling herself by writing it all down. Sod it, since I am her, I may as well take control of my life. And start a diary.   

For more tales of Bad Romance come back on Sunday night or click here

Talking dirty good, gap yah bad: why no one wants to date a do-gooder

The Guardian

Potentially worrying news for the human race. If future generations are bred from those we want to sleep with, do-gooders are dying out. No one – no matter how depraved – wants to rip the socks and Birkenstocks off anyone.

Yes, if you want us to be brutal we’ll confess – when it comes to sex – we’d rather pull the balaclava off an actual mugger than the bib and clipboard off a chugger. And, worse and worse still, the boffins are on to us – exposing this weird, terrible (and, until now, mercifully secret) perversion. A team of researchers at Yale and Oxford has shown that while we admire people who spend their time helping impoverished communities and donating money for malaria-combating mosquito nets, we’re not keen on shagging them. In fact, we don’t even want to be friends with them. As human beings, we prefer those who concentrate their time and energy on friends and family rather than complete unknowns in dire predicaments.

“When helping strangers conflicts with helping family and kin, people prefer those who show favouritism, even if that results in doing less good overall,” explains Molly Crockett, who authored the study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Participants were asked to choose between two “equally moral” scenarios and overwhelmingly preferred those who – for instance – would choose to spend the day with their “lonely mother” over “building homes for Habitat for Humanity”.

As an ex-dating columnist, I was already aware of such bias. It’s even evident on Tinder. Dick pics are posted and no one bats an eyelid. But just try uploading a picture of yourself “do-gooding” on a “gap yah”. Some cruel soul is likely to screengrab and share it with the “Humanitarians of Tinder” Tumblr page. In app-land, all mockery is reserved for the well-meaning.

Of course, one could argue there’s not just psychology but sound sense behind our distrust of those who are so intent on doing good for others. After all, how are they to know what is best for people they don’t know?

In Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity, the New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar explores why we are so sceptical of “do-gooders” and why their good deeds make us so uncomfortable. She cites the remarkable tale of two parents who founded a leprosy colony in India and chose to live there – in huts with no walls – even though their two small children might have caught the disease or been “eaten by panthers”.

She points to the Austrian social critic Ivan Illich, who made a speech to young Americans wanting to help out Mexico in 1968. “If you insist on working with the poor,” he said, “At least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing or what people think of you.”

But back to the sex. Do-gooding is all well and good. But unfortunately, when it comes to making babies and hence the future of humanity, we all prefer someone who can – quite simply – do us. So if your notion of “talking dirty” consists of a blow-by-blow account of constructing a mud hut from the brown banks of the Zambezi. Just stop. You’re doing it all wrong.

BETTER TO START YOUR OWN MODERN FAMILY THAN WAIT FOR ‘THE ONE’

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When I was a girl, my mother stuffed my head full of fairy-tales and the most fantastic of them all sounded quite banal at the time. It was about how families are made. One day (she was quite adamant) I would meet a man and love him so fiercely I’d want to make a tiny version of him in the form of a baby. We would all live happily ever after. The End.

For the past 20 years, I expected that to happen. Never questioned that it would. But now I find myself on the precipice of 35, when (according to NHS Choices) my fertility begins its dramatic fall. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the very concept of a ‘soulmate’ is a hysterical joke played on the over-romantic and hopeful. It’s probably time to admit to the realities of the 21st century — where dating apps breed only casual sex, not screaming bundles in a crib. Like ever-increasing numbers of frustrated singles worldwide, I must get creative, joining the ranks of those creating new modern families.

Today, babies can’t always be made in the traditional way — for all sorts of reasons — but we are not admitting defeat. Some have enjoyed the full fairytale effect (falling in love, getting married) but with someone of the same sex, so a third party’s sperm or eggs are required to complete the domestic picture. For women, this can be relatively straightforward. Intrauterine insemination costs around £800 to £1,300 at a fertility clinic. It is successful only 22 per cent of the time, but lesbian couples have been making babies this way for decades.

For men, it’s much more complicated, because a surrogate is needed. The non-profit agency Brilliant Beginnings, which has helped create 800 families since it was founded in 2013, claims that £12,000 to £15,000 is ‘the going rate for UK surrogacy arrangements’. IVF is successful only 40 per cent of the time — and that’s among under-35s — so costs can escalate very rapidly.

As a result, many modern families try to incorporate the biological parent into the set-up — which is a lot less expensive, at least in a financial sense. Agencies such as Modamily facilitate co-parenting relationships with strangers, or some people reach more informal agreements with friends and family. In 2015, for instance, the TV presenter Mary Portas revealed that the child she was raising with her lesbian partner (the baby’s genetic mother) was fathered by her brother — meaning there was a genetic link on both sides.

One 31-year-old single, straight man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told me that he is setting out to become a ‘known donor’ for two old friends — one of whom he met at high school, and her lesbian partner of eight years. After joking about the subject for several years, they are quite set on the idea. The baby will very much have two mothers as parents — he does not intend to co-parent and compares the process he is now engaged in as akin to donating blood.

‘They’re going to be much better parents than I can imagine myself being,’ he explains. ‘The idea is that I’ll be a godparent/semi-uncle — involved in the way I would be in any of my close friends’ kids’ lives growing up.’ But if it is a boy, he adds, ‘maybe there’s going to come a time when he’d have questions from a male point of view’. To save money, the trio are adopting a DIY approach. ‘I’m synced with ovulation cycles so I’m going over there to the bathroom with a mooncup to make the donation. It’s not quite a turkey baster, but it’s not far off.’

It’s not just gay people who desperately want children and are casting around for such inventive strategies. It’s singles — particularly single women — in their thirties and forties too. In our twenties, we’d meet up and drink too much wine, discussing our troubles with lovers. Now we obsess about babies. How we want them. How we’re afraid we won’t be able to have them.

We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we are not mad or selfish. That it is very natural to want children. That it is OK to feel overwhelmed by the sudden fierceness of the need, because it is built into us to ensure our survival, like feeling intense hunger if we’re in danger of starving. That since the UK birth rate has plummeted from 2.4 children to 1.8 in recent years, it is even quite important that we do.

One friend is working so hard thanks to her recent promotion that she has no time to date and is looking into freezing her eggs. This strategy is so popular among high-powered career women that companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google offer this service as one of the perks of working for them. Another friend — a highly successful journalist — has given up on dating because she never meets eligible men and is talking through making baby plans with her very supportive mother. Two more friends — both in their mid- to late thirties — are going through the agony of failed cycles of IVF.

You might think that we are not romantic but we’re probably far more romantic than most. Despite the odds, we’re still holding out for the right man. We all tell tales of those who compromised their ideals in order to get married. Women who ‘want it all’ are frequently lambasted in the right-wing press.

But those who settled for half or a bit aren’t necessarily any happier. Two parents may well be better than one — but the ONS currently estimates that 42 per cent of marriages fail, and the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce isn’t an ideal atmosphere in which to raise children either.

In this context, co-parenting presents a possible solution. The Stork is a new agency that matches people who want to be parents for a fee that costs less than ‘a new car or a mortgage’ — or a divorce. It was founded by businesswoman Fiona Thomas to bring together those no longer prepared to keep gambling that if they only hold out long enough they will eventually find ‘The One’.

If you’re a woman in your late thirties, Thomas explains, ‘there are four outcomes. You can meet someone perfectly naturally and it’s all fantastic and wonderful. You can try to meet someone through an [agency] like mine and end up co-parenting. You can meet someone and it’s the wrong person — and you’d be amazed how many people do that; the large proportion of people on their wedding day who think, “I know this isn’t exactly what I want, it’s probably not quite right, but I’m doing it anyway.” And the fourth option, of course, is to do nothing. You get to 50 and you’re playing with your nephews and nieces.’

There are more single women alive today than at any point in history. And though we might have given up on men, we’re not all prepared to surrender our hope of a baby. The women who use her services, Thomas says, are bright, attractive and successful. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened for you doesn’t mean you’re some kind of freak or reject,’ she insists. ‘It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everybody’s got a story about why it hasn’t happened to them, and it doesn’t in any way indicate failure.’

The conclusion is that we can’t all have the fairytale endings. But that’s OK, because those creating new modern families know there’s an opportunity to change the narrative. Our stories aren’t over yet.