Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers
One of the things I have discovered over the last few months is how little I know about the business of books.
I am a director of one of the world’s most prestigious publishers, Penguin. Before that I was with the world’s largest educational publisher, Pearson Education, and before that with W H Smith and Waterstone’s, Britain’s leading booksellers. I thought I had a pretty good idea how the industry worked. I didn’t.
Take the role of agents. It is axiomatic at Penguin that authors need agents. Nowadays it is virtually impossible without an agent to get a major publisher interested in a new author. Agents diligently mine their slush piles, I thought, looking for gems to polish and sell.
My Penguin colleagues have been enormously supportive and introduced me to numerous agents who were – usually – very gracious in their rejections. As one remarked candidly “If you were a celebrity Empires Apart could be a best seller, if you were a politician or academic it would sell, as it is you won’t get through the door at Waterstone’s.”
Eventually I did find a leading agent who seemed keen. I spent what seemed an enormous amount of time on things I thought he would do like competitor analysis and marketing plans before he announced he was sending my manuscript to his “reader”.
That’s when my naiveté really showed. I thought a reader would read my precious manuscript. At last a chance to receive a serious, professional review. What I received was a damning indictment that made the agent drop me like the proverbial hot potato. I read the reader’s comments with incredulity – the one thing he had clearly not done was read the book.
At the beginning of Empires Apart I mention two Viking explorers. Leif Ericson is famous for supposedly discovering America, but in fact has no real historical importance. Rurik on the other hand is completely forgotten but, I wrote, founded Russia: Rurik’s Land. I wanted to explore the way history is transformed over time and rewritten by each new generation and a few pages later I returned to Rurik. The Rurik tale I wrote was like much of Russian history, it was stirring, adventurous and almost certainly untrue. Nobody really knows where the name Russia comes from and I mentioned various other theories, all more probable than Rurik’s Land.
The agent’s anonymous reader clearly had not read very far. I was condemned for presenting the story of Rurik as if it was the undisputed truth. There were other versions of Russia’s origins commented the reader – which was exactly my point. In skimming through my manuscript the reader had made a number of similar errors, ascribing views to me that I had not expressed and the reason soon became clear: politics. The reader readily admitted he had no sympathy with the political views he presumed to colour my writing. I was he decided another conspiracy theorist.
No historical writing is value free and I wouldn’t pretend that my own is any different. The problem arises when the politics of the writer and the reader, any reader, are so far apart that rational debate becomes impossible. The incredibly detailed research in a book like Robin Ramsay’s Politics & Paranoia gets dismissed not on the quality of its analysis but on the political flavour of its conclusions.
One theme the agent’s reader found impossible to deal with in Empires Apart was my treatment of terrorism in America. I described what I thought was barbaric: an indiscriminate attack without warning by religious fundamentalists on people going peacefully about their daily lives, an attack that caused carnage on an unprecedented scale and whose “justification” was not only totally incomprehensible to the victims but totally alien to the values of their society. I thought that was a pretty fair description of the 9/11 attacks.
It was also a pretty fair description of the events nearly four centuries earlier at Mystic, Connecticut. The native Pequot township of Missituck was surrounded before dawn on the 27th of May 1637 by a group of armed men led by Captain John Underhill, an English mercenary hired by the Puritan settlers of Boston. As the first rays of the morning sun streaked the sky Underhill’s men fell on the sleeping villagers (mainly women, children and elderly as the men were away hunting). There were only five survivors. The Mystic Massacre contravened all the norms of what American natives considered to be civilised warfare. Its purpose was not just the ethnic cleansing of the Pequot but to terrorise any natives unwilling to recognise the superiority of the white man and his religion.
I thought a comparison between the Mystic Massacre and 9/11 was usefully thought-provoking. It graphically illustrated my thesis that one of the factors influencing the development of America’s political landscape was a strain of religious fundamentalism more akin to modern Iran than to contemporary Europe. After the massacre William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers and a man lauded to this day in American textbooks, gave praise for the “sweet sacrifice” of natives “frying in the fire”. One can imagine Osama Bin Laden speaking similar words after 9/11.
I can imagine that – the agent’s reader certainly could not. Such a suggestion he asserted, (in a phrase for which I must admit to having a grudging admiration), was “approaching the wild borders of Chomskystan”.
My purpose in relaying this vignette is not to get my own back on the hack who savaged my work (or at least that is not the only reason) but to illustrate how precarious writing can be. How many brilliant books lie unpublished because someone took a dislike to the opening line in a synopsis or the casual wording of the Contents page?
I eventually gave up on agents and sent my manuscript direct to publishers and was lucky enough to find two or three who read it all the way through.
Before passing on the blogging baton to Caroline Bailey, the first of Picnic’s children’s book illustrators to blog, I must therefore give heartfelt thanks to Picnic for willingness to read beyond the first page and give others the opportunity to decide whether Empires Apart is thought-provoking or conspiracy theorising.