The Books We Want to Read (March/April 2004)Friday, 01 April 2011 07:50
OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND
The Books We Want to Read
Since the publication of my first book in 1978 many people have asked me how they could get the book they were writing published. Almost all of these books were accounts of the writer’s life or the life of someone close to them. The writers felt that the life they described was unique and significant, and that a published account of this life would not only give them great satisfaction but it would be of great value to other people.
It is extremely difficult to get a book published, especially if the author has never been published before. However, I would never tell anyone not to bother with writing their story. Indeed, I have often advised people to write, if not an autobiography, then a diary, a poem, or just a few sentences about ideas that are significant to them. When we take what is inside us, our thoughts and feelings, and put them outside us on paper or on a computer screen we are able to look at our experience from a distance, see it more clearly and so gain some control over it. If other people read what we have written they bear witness to our experience, and they extend their own understanding of life.
However, publishers want more in a book than an account of a person’s life. The book must be able to attract a great number of readers because that’s how publishers make their money. A publishable book is one which excites its readers but does not distress them. Thus, if the story is of terrible events and much pain and suffering, it should have a happy ending with the central character surviving all the catastrophes and emerging a wiser and happier person. Alas, real life is often not like that. As a result many books which should be published aren’t.
Two such books came my way quite recently. The first, Losing Zoë, was written by Dorothy Schwarz with Walter Schwarz. Dorothy and Walter are the parents of Zoë, a most beautiful and talented young woman who at university became manic, and then depressed to the point of attempting suicide. Dorothy Schwarz reconstructed Zoë’s life from the papers Zoë left behind when, some years later after an outstanding career marked by occasional periods of erratic behaviour, she took her own life.
Such a life raises many questions, some of which Dorothy and Walter asked themselves. Why didn’t they realise that high spirits can be a cover for a sense of fragmenting as a person, and an aggressive temper a sign that a person was filled with dread? Why didn’t the psychiatrists tell them this?
Why mental health professionals fail is a question which arises again and again in Lindsay Westfall’s autobiography Mother, a book which hits the reader almost as hard as Lindsay’s mother hit her. But this book is far more than the story of professionals’ failure. It shows how not just that physical and sexual abuse harms the child but that the child who observes this cruelty is also greatly affected. Literary agents rejected Dorothy Schwarz’s book because it was ‘too harrowing’ and might lead unhappy people to consider suicide. Lindsay Westfall’s story is one of great courage, of how a person kept on keeping on despite the horrors she encountered, but she tells her story with great anger, sparing the reader nothing. If this book were presented to publishers and agents as a novel they would be likely to see it as being in the popular tradition of the tough, realistic novel like Trainspotting. But an account of a real life? No. The nice people of publishing know that, like them, the majority of readers cannot bear too much reality.
Could the internet be the solution? Perhaps an organisation like MIND could set up a website for e-books where we could read the books that publishers deny us.