Thursday, January 29, 2015

Woolf and her publishers

My two-week immersion in the world, work, and (as much as possible) mind of Virginia Woolf has come to a close, as I reached the necessarily sad, even heart-wrenching end of Hermione Lee's biography this morning. I can't imagine anyone doing a better job of grappling with--and, to the extent possible, helping us to understand--the complicated, difficult, brilliant personality of Woolf, and how it fueled her work. I have no doubt that for the rest of my life, as I read and re-read Woolf's novels and essays and letters, Lee's portrait, and all of Woolf's contradictions, admirable and doubtful qualities, will be firmly in my mind.

Today, I thought I'd call out a couple of minor instances when, as someone who works in book publishing, I had great sympathy for Woolf's publishers. Because the Woolfs' own Hogarth Press was her primary publisher, the difficulties of working with Woolf--which included the range of her work, which could make it difficult to market; the uncertainty about when and what would be the next book; and the severe emotional strain that accompanied the completion of a book, and thus complicated the proofing stage--were mostly kept in house. The same for the increasingly outmoded and inappropriate cover art created by Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell: insisting on a particular cover is all fine and good if you're the publisher as well as the author, but taking such a plan to an outside publisher would surely have led to frantic meetings and copious amounts of worry.

In the United States, however, Woolf's publisher for many years was Donald Brace (whose firm, now part of the HBJ etc. borg, still holds the rights to Woolf's books), and while he seems to have been accommodating, and even grateful to be her publisher, traces of his struggles do turn up in Lee's book. There's a simple one, which plagued both the US and UK editions of Orlando: Woolf's inclusion of the subtitle "A Biography," combined with her place as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, ensured it would be mis-shelved in many bookstores--and, as biography tends to be shelved by subject rather than author, mis-shelved in a way that almost guaranteed no one would find it.

That, however, is a minor problem: the moment reviews start appearing, even a mis-shelved book will ultimately find its readers. What elicits more sympathy from me for Brace is hearing of the delays. Figuring out what books you'll publish in a given season--and which you can't quite count on enough to announce them yet--is always tough, and when you've got an author who is simultaneously as prolific and as prone to rewriting as Woolf was, it can be incredibly difficult. Here's Lee on the back-and-forth with Brace about The Years, the book of Woolf's that seems to have had the most painful gestation:
In April 1934 she told [Brace] that the book would not be ready for a year. . . . In November 1934, as she began to revise, she told Brace it would need a lot of work and would now probably not be ready until the autumn of 1935. But by autumn she was writing again to say that it was too long, and taking too long, and still needed revising. The following April, 1936, Leonard explained that although the book was now in proof, she was unwell, and publication must be put off until the autumn. Brace, who had now seen proofs of thee first part, wrote forbearingly: "It isn't surprising that this long and carefully planned book should have tired her out." In July he was asking if he could make November a tentative publication date. But by then it was still not ready to send off, and in the end was not published until March 1937 in England and April 1937 in America.
Oh, how I feel for Brace when I think about that inquiry from July! How careful I imagine he was not to seem too pushy, but how very much he would have wanted, and needed, to know whether he could count on the book being in stores for Christmas. And the lines Lee quotes from his earlier letter feel so familiar: that is exactly how you write to an author--in meticulously labored-over sentences--in support, even as their delays are making your life, and business, more difficult.

The honor of being Virginia Woolf's publisher, of course, would compensate for a fair amount of strain, and justify a fair amount of flexibility that one might not be willing to offer another author. Nonetheless, I expect there was many a night when Brace got home from the office and wanted nothing more than a quiet drink, and the company of a good book whose author he had nothing at all to do with.


  1. And try getting a publisher today to accept a novel where there is a ten year gap between the first and second sections in which the main character dies as in To The Lighthouse.

    Love your blog, only sorry The World's Least Popular Book Club is no more.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Gabrielle. A suspicion of (and superstition about) New Year's resolutions has kept me from explicitly stating something whose effects you may have noticed: I decided that I'd try to get my blog on a more reliable schedule again this year. Work and piano practice have eaten into the time and mental energy it requires, but I aim to try to do a better job of balancing. Comments like yours help convince me it's the right decision!

    (As for the World's Least Popular Book Club: Never say die! It may come roaring back?)

  3. Have you read Alan Rusbridger's book, Play it Again? A good account of the ups and downs of a dedicated amateur.

  4. I haven't read that one--it's where he's learning a Chopin piece, right? It does sound interesting. I suspect Rusbridger is a bit more dedicated and talented than I am, but it nonetheless seems likely to be a book where I'd find support for the fact that I'm putting in hours and hours to at best, if I'm lucky, become a mediocre pianist. (But it is satisfying!)