A Vindication (Short Story)

Dear D,

…. How should I begin, or should I be writing to him at all? I’m just one of the many he deals with; I doubt if he gives me a moment’s thought from one week to the next…..

Dear D,

Your letter of the 6th inst. was received yester…. Good God! To think that I call myself a writer; it reads more like a bank manager’s letter. Come on Rosamund, pull yourself together. Write one of your sensitive, literate letters to your publisher……

 

Dear D,

Thank you very much for sending me the proofs of my …. No, no, no; it’s too obsequious. Who the hell does he think he is? He’s just a scabby old editor, a writer manqué, a man who couldn’t make it in a more competitive, less gentlemanly business, like a firm that produces underwear, gardening tools or maltesers …..

Dear D,

I got your proofs yesterday. Thanks for sending them….Now, what did I hear on the radio the other day? Yes, I remember; it was a talk by a professor of English language at an east coast university who admonished writers, and other people who should know better, not to degenerate and de-glorify our literary heritage by employing slang and contractions and all sorts of other heinous things in our writing. But what the hell! You can stand my breezy colloquialisms, can’t you D? Wait a minute, though! I seem to recall that you’re a stickler also for form and dignity. I remember we once had a lengthy argument about whether I should be allowed to keep the word ‘shite’ in one of my earlier stories. Had I used it in straight narrative, I would have probably left the ‘e’ off the end. But I wanted my character, a feminist, lesbian, single parent, to exclaim in the middle of the story, located in the seedy end of the New Town (somewhere between Broughton Street and Canonmills) ‘shite’! Somehow I felt the word with the ‘e’ on the end added an extra dimension to the story.

But dear old D, down there in his Bloomsbury office lined with leather-bound first editions, thought differently. You wrote that you were ‘so sorry’ (why do you always write that you’re so this and so that?) ‘but we’ (royal, of course) ‘cannot include the word “shite” in your story. You see, Rosamund, one has to realise that the word can still offend and one doesn’t want to alienate the mass of the reading public, does one?’ To which I wanted to reply with a letter containing one word, ‘Balls!’

God preserve us from reasonable, liberal, understanding, sympathetic, but covertly autocratic, manipulative editors of publishing houses! But I’d better cool down. If I write a diatribe I’ll be showing you, D, how much I’m at your mercy, that I hang on your every word, wait for your letters when the post comes each day, that I am a writer who has fallen on hard times, and hasn’t much chance of getting away from them….

Dear D,

As an unknown writer…. no….. a new writer, a tyro, a beginner ….. no, no, I can’t undermine myself like that. If I do it to myself, how can I expect anyone else to think well of me? What approach should I take? I mustn’t be too conciliatory, but neither must I appear conceited.

Dear D,

…. this time I’ll get it right! ....Thank you for sending the proofs of my story …. that’s okay ….. I am pleased you have decided to publish my story, ‘Dead Bricks’, in your forthcoming anthology of New Writing. When I last saw you we discussed together the story so that you could edit it properly, and I told you I didn’t care a jot what you did to it. I had moved on to other things, I said. I used the simile that my stories, essays and poems were like paper darts shot into the wind. Some landed on target; others didn’t. But that wasn’t entirely true, D. I was trying to appear unconcerned and nonchalant. I said I didn’t care what you did to the story, but in my heart of hearts I did. I cared passionately. I was too frightened to say how strongly I felt about the way you had butchered my prose. You know the bit here in the proof, the bit you wrested from me, stirred around and regurgitated so that it resembled a thalidomide child. You bolted with my work. You said, of course, in your letter that you had to edit heavily my story to make it clear, to iron out the pieces of dialect that were incomprehensible, and the eccentric punctuation. Confound your metropolitan parochialism, D! Confound you in your leather-lined Bloomsbury haven. Those incomprehensible bits are the language of my home town. You said that no-one would have understood my heroine if I allowed her to girn at the broo. And when she tripped in the close you thought I was writing Double-Dutch. Well, D, what about your Faulkner? Don’t you, when he writes about rednecks and other Southern people, let him keep his vernacular? So, in that case why can’t you let me keep mine?

You had another reservation about my writing, didn’t you, D? You said it was essential that you lighten the load; my story was too dark and depressing for your kind of readership. You complained of the ending where my lesbian, separatist single-mother takes a nose-dive, pram before her, from the top of Arthur’s Seat because she could no longer tolerate the fact that her lover had left her to marry the Lord High Advocate and settle down in a detached house in Davidson’s Mains. My writing was too subjective and emotional, you said. But, D, being subjective is valid; subjectivity is merely a microcosm of the whole world, is it not? When I protested, you just grumbled about the arrogance of writers and tried to humour me which made me feel more impotent than I had felt before.  

Do you remember when I first came to see you in your Bloomsbury sanctuary? Up until that point I addressed you as Mr T. Then you asked me to adopt that nice compromise between familiarity and formality, so I wrote to you as Dear DT. When you asked me to call you by your first name, I thought aha! This is it, I am at last admitted to the inner echelons of the revered world of letters even though I am a woman. How marvelous it is to live in the late twentieth century when one doesn’t need to change one’s name to George or Acton or Currer?

Do you remember, D, when you took me out to lunch? I won’t forget those friendly, avuncular admonitions of yours: Miss F, you called me at the hors d’oeuvre stage but by the time the dessert came round you had started to use my first name. You lectured me on your firm’s fine tradition of handling female writers; you said that they were good to have on your list particularly the younger ones who could boast a pretty snapshot on the end cover. But I protest strongly, D, my vagina is as intelligent as my brain is pretty!

To get back to your reservations about the darkness in my writing: ‘Why must I dwell on the pain?’ you remonstrate. ‘Aren’t there in life happy experiences and moments of joy?’ Of course there are, D, but like the poet, Anne Sexton, I feel that pain engraves a deeper memory. It takes courage to write about those dark areas, ‘it’s dangerous in there, they say. ‘It’s wrong – even evil – to explore those skeletons.’ But I want to explore so I may understand; that’s why I fossick and exhume. ‘Be a fool,’ said Anne Sexton; that’s what one must be, and that takes courage. Do you understand, D? I’ve always felt displaced and that I belong nowhere. I certainly don’t belong in your galley of quasi-fools, DT: those who pander to commercialism and stick in the middle of the road. By you, D, I am simultaneously respected and reviled: you want what I produce (you applaud it wholeheartedly) but you’re not so keen on supporting my vagaries, as you call them; you think I am haughty, wayward and recalcitrant. Can’t you see that I don’t belong anywhere except perhaps with the mad or the bad, but ultimately with the fools.

I think it was you, D, who implied that there was something unwholesome in conjuring up the dark spirits: ‘don’t paint the devil on the wall’, you said reminding me of an old German adage. Maybe you’re right, D. Who knows? I mustn’t, you intimated, engrave such obscenities on the human consciousness. I was even accused of conjuring them up from the ether adding more dirt to the ever-flowing pool of mud. But am I not merely reflecting our world but in an artistic form?

Grim though my writing may be, my preoccupation with misery and pain has a beauty of its own: as a writer once remarked when he first saw Calcutta, the city of the dreadful night, poverty is picturesque; the truly hungry assume almost balletic compositions; beggary is beautiful. The face of a friend racked in pain while he was dying had a poignancy as frightful and beautiful as the painting by Poussin of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. I can picture you moving uncomfortably in your well-upholstered seat, D, the reasonable white liberal of North West London that you are.

Why should I not be allowed to pick my scabs and examine them? I have no need to vindicate myself; haven’t those Christians for almost two thousand years flaunted shamelessly the model of the instrument of torture that murdered their leader, bejeweling it, hanging it proudly round their necks, placing it on graves and altars; is it not the most powerful symbol of the occident?

What I really want to say, D, is that anyone who enters new territory finds inevitably that he/she is alone and misunderstood. I may not be much of a harbinger, scout or whatever else you want to call an artist but I’m still up against that age-old problem besetting one of my kind: that what I choose to write about is generally thought of as an unfit subject. I am advised to clam up and let the skin grow over the unclean wound, but the purpose of my writing is to cleanse and purge. What’s wrong with trying to gouge out the offending body, to let it be seen instead of hiding it away?

The trouble was, D, that you flattered me; at least in the beginning, you did. ‘Write us a novel, Rosamund,’ you said. ‘I’m sure you could write an excellent one.’ (no skin off your nose if it didn’t work; no mention of a contract or money -- just write us a novel): ‘You lucky woman,’ I thought, ‘being taken seriously by such a famous publisher, a firm that kept relics of many an author; the lock of Charlotte Bronte, Byron’s sperm in a phial, the consumptive phlegm of Chatterton, and Southey’s spittle.’

You wanted to snaffle me up as your prodigy while you played gallantly the nurturer, saviour and Svenghali to my Trilby. But, dear D, I’m not your race-horse trained into running the Booker steeplechase, to leap over hurdles and perform literary gymnastics for you.

I’m like a bird, a bird in a cage, if you like (yes, it’s not the most brilliant of similes, I must admit) but you see, D, writers are like birds. They have a song – their own particular one— which they must sing. Just like mediums who make their minds free and available for something (call it what you will) to come through them. If you clip their wings, or try to modify their song, they atrophy and sometimes even die. So be careful, D, otherwise my song which until recently, has been untampered with, will become clouded and out of tune. You saw what I had to offer, and tried to catch, encapsulate and make it into something marketable not realizing that it was as fragile and elusive as a cobweb, it needed to be treated with sensitivity to enable it to blossom.

Why is it D, that I like you in spite of our differences in opinion? What do you, as the male editor represent for me, the female writer? Who are you? Why do you have such a hypnotic effect? What is it that gets me to respond, acquiesce and accept your demands? With your editing sperm, you fertilise my writing egg and an embryo grows. You inject into me something that enables my fruit to gestate and become a child. You may not see it that way, though. Didn’t you once refer to Mary Shelley in connection with me; you said that it was you who had given birth to me (a repetition of the distorted Jewish myth) and I was your new writer who, after being created, wouldn’t comply and turned into a monster like Frankenstein’s.

Somehow, D, you appear to be someone that you so obviously are not; your existence as an editor is purely quixotic; you’re there to help people, to nurture promising writers, or so you say. So in my isolation and keenness to succeed I found it easy to lose myself in you (a classic female tendency in a world set up by men) because I had to have someone to write for, someone to pour out all my exuberance and enthusiasm; you, of course were my nearest port of call; if you thought my writing passed muster, then I was set fair for a good voyage.

You have decried me for being neurotic, fragmented, for not having that cool determination you associate with your male writers. You have no sympathy when I say that there are parts of me neglected because of my life as a writer; the desire for motherhood, for wanting to be both independent and cared for, of wanting both celibacy and a lover, of loving women because of their unfailing nearness to what is really important. You do not understand when I say that my writing is taking me away from being my natural self; in other words being a whole woman, a woman who doesn’t want to be split in half; expected to be either clever or pretty, but never both, a eunuch – infertile being – or Earth Mother; Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. Woman is always seen in polarities; never complexities. She is ironed out into a caricature or seen as a two-dimensional personality purely for man’s simplistic comprehension.

I don’t know why I come back to you time and time again, D? Maybe it’s your manner, D; you’re like a sympathetic surgeon or midwife when you stitch up my verse and round off my similes. Such an ingratiating man you are, D. Is it because you’re tall, and slim and ever so aloof, D – the classic ex-public school type, D, that gives you authority and credibility with your educated, blase manner of speaking. Why didn’t you go into politics, D, along with those other smooth Davids? Maybe you should have become someone’s think-tank, D, instead of victimizing promising authors, D!

The trouble is I don’t think you have a clue about writers; you compartmentalize you life; work goes in one box, playing in another and sex in another. You fail to understand that for me it is all the same thing: I am my work; my work is my libido, my play is my work and libido; I am all bound up in one complicated and incomprehensible ball.

Well, D, what shall I say now? I know what I want to say; oh, yes I do. You have ruined my story, D, through your crass insensitivity. You have turned it upside down, hoovered, homogenized and made it as bland and colourless as your boring Home Counties relatives who I talked to for half an hour at a cocktail party given in some writer’s honour; of course, D, I know, and you know, that I’m not going to write to you (or send off) anything approaching querulousness. You, in your leather-bound haven know that, don’t you, D, only too well…

Dear D,

I am so sorry I have taken so long to reply to your letter of the 6th. Thank you for sending the proofs of my story. I have read them over, and cannot find anything that I want to add. You wrote that you expected the anthology to be published sometime next year when I should receive the second part of my advance. I await happily the date of publication.

Yours sincerely,

Rosamund.