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.

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

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.

BAD ROMANCE IN THE DAILY MAIL

This may shock you, but I am in my mid-30s and am perfectly happy to be single.

And I refuse to whip myself up into a frenzy of hand-wringing just because I never seem to have a boyfriend, never mind a husband.

It’s true that, if I judged my whole life according to my search for love, I could make myself miserable. But just because I have so far failed to find Mr Right does not in any way make me a failure as a human being.

My 80-year-old grandmother is appalled by my attitude, and thinks I ought to be taking drastic steps towards settling down.

But I shouldn’t be valued solely for my ability to attract a man — I’m a successful journalist, a good friend and sister — and I’m not going to conform to some ‘desperate’ vision of how a single woman should behave.

Frankly, such stereotypes no longer match the reality. Single women are no longer outcasts, or even unusual; in Britain today, there are more of us than at any point in history, more and more of us in our 30s, 40s and beyond.

If you’re aged between 25 and 44, you’re also five times more likely to be living alone than you were back in 1973.

And yet the way we talk about single women has been slow to catch up.

The most familiar ‘singleton’ in fiction, for example, is still the hapless Bridget Jones — a character more than 20 years out of date, who popped up married and with a baby in the latest celluloid instalment of her story.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5605213/The-rise-alpha-singles.html#ixzz5EtjN7mTF