I’ve written before about the importance of kindness, in my work as a literary agent, and generally in our world of publishing. I don’t propose kindness as a replacement for business-like behaviour or for sound commercial decisions. It is disrespectful for publishers and agents to treat authors as anything other than business partners. But kindness has a place in business. And kindness is a particularly important impulse to bring into one’s dealings with writers, for writers must be amongst the kindest of humans.
Why do I say this? First of all, talented authors are kind to one another. Although authors have to compete for attention and praise and sales, most writers loathe this fact and sensibly choose to see this competitive activity as their publisher’s business. They could not approach their own daily activity of writing in competitive spirit; the imagination can only be fettered by constant comparison to other authors’ works.
Instead, most authors view one another as allies and are comforted by the knowledge that there are other writers, sitting at other desks, also trying to find the words which pin down the emotion or event they have in mind; other writers also sometimes in despair of ever finding the phrase they are searching for, of illuminating anything new. And so authors encourage one another constantly, praise whenever they can, club together into gangs and read one another’s work and get drunk together and sponsor one another and teach one another and generally help each other in whatever kind way they can.
And authors are kindness itself to us agents and editors and publicists and sales directors and marketeers and managers and assistants. They are so patient with us as we stumble into their creative lives, time-poor, blowing in to their quiet studies like noisy neighbours in a rush asking for cups of sugar at just the wrong time; or moaning about the pouring rain and the bad market outside when on the page it may have been quite sunny today actually; or running through an author’s future career prospects sometimes with as much emotion as if we were reading the weather forecast. They forgive us for All of This not being life or death to us – they forgive us for forgetting sometimes that everything we speak of is Everything to them. They are so kind to us non-writers, for not having a clue, actually, what it is like, to sit down, at a desk, and try to put words on a page, to try to pin something down, to illuminate a new thing.
They are kind enough to allow us to believe ourselves useful. They are generous enough to some of us to pretend we are essential – even though every sensible person must see that we are none of us more than replaceable functionaries in the author’s palace.
So yes, despite the uncertainties of authors’ careers and fortunes and the emotional and practical challenges of their daily work, authors are kind to one another and to us. But when I say that authors are amongst the kindest of humans, it is their writing I speak of. Because when they sit down at those solitary desks, what they are trying to pin down is us – what they are searching for is our truths, what they are seeking to illuminate are our dark corners. It is their compassion for us flawed humans which enables them to see us for who we really are, and to gently explain to us through their stories why we act as we do, feel as we do. Without kindness to us and to themselves, why would they bother to invent new versions of us, new ways of transforming our experiences into learnings; how could they spend all their time with humanity, without kindness? Writers are humanity’s nursemaid, they are the midwives of our every redefinition, they foster our hopes and revelations.
How should we be kind to authors? In so many ways – and every writer has different needs. But here are some ideas: We should try for good timing – to telephone or write or intervene when we’re needed and not when it suits. We should keep talking – not disappear under piles of work without saying – I’m still here, I’ll speak to you soon. We should be respectfully honest about difficult things without that brutal variety of honesty which is a sort of showing off or excusing oneself. We should be attentive to the short term whilst looking ahead to what is to come next so that the author can be prepared. We should be respectful and businesslike and that is a kindness in itself. We should read and read and then write back.
I love to be kind – so much so, I am keenly aware of all the many times when I am unkind. Because, even though I love my job, and I love writers – which should make kindness natural and automatic – when I am weary or self-centred, I lack compassion. I would make a bad novelist: sometimes I just can’t be doing with people. On those days, I can be unkind to everyone, including to myself.
But the only remedy I have for those feelings is reading: books are the only prescription. Because a good novel can take you in its arms and carry you to a better place. A good novelist can take you in her arms and reignite hope the way a great singer can carry your tune when you lose your voice. Because writers are the kindest of humans. And their compassion makes it so easy, so natural, so satisfying for all of us lovers of books to repay their kindness, through our work, every day.