In a month when the fashion magazines become swollen with hundreds of pages of advertising and fluff, the September issue of ‘Elle’ offers a dangerously thoughtful essay by fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, who believes it is possible for a woman to choose not to have children— as she did— and still have a meaningful life. Given the taboo social theme, it’s no surprise Gaitskill’s piece started at Harper’s and made the rounds before finding a home at Elle.
At 44, the author is happy with herself and with the decisions she made. What she doesn’t like is the way society treats procreation as an imperative for women, and the sense of superiority sometimes expressed by people who have children to those who don’t. In her view, some women set their expectations too high by trying to have it all. “Having kids is really hard for some women,” she told Press Clips. “In most cases, a young child is primarily the mother’s responsibility, and if the woman is ambitious and wants to work and be an artist of some kind, that’s murder.”
Gaitskill knew that it’s “bad” to be a woman who doesn’t have children. But she has learned that it’s worse to be a childless woman who dares to defend her choices. “I didn’t think of it when I first started writing [this piece],” she says, but in dealing with various editors, “I realized I’ve never had such antagonistic reactions to anything I’ve ever written.”
The original assignment came from Harper’s senior editor Charis Conn, who Gaitskill says called the author last year to ask “if there was anything I was interested in writing about.” After turning in a draft, the author revised it twice but was still not clear about what the editors wanted. She freely admits the 7000-word piece needed work. But it also seems that some editors found it difficult to believe that a woman would choose not to have children unless it was the result of some traumatic emotional experience.
Gaitskill got the sense that Harper’s editors wanted her to go into more detail about her family life, because that might have influenced her decision to remain childless. “I will sometimes tell personal stories to illustrate a point,” she says, “but I didn’t think that my family was the point in this case.” Gaitskill remembers that one of the editors took what felt like an antagonistic stance, telling her that he had children, and that “having children has really deepened me.” He also told her that “there’s so much pain and regret in this piece over all the things you haven’t done,” which she felt was an aggressive misreading. Eventually, she says, her agent called Harper’s and was told the piece was “unpublishable” as is.
Gaitskill withdrew the essay and submitted it to The New York Times Magazine, which asked her to cut it more than she wanted to do. Next stop: The New Yorker, whereupon she found herself again talking to an editor who “wanted more about my childhood, because she felt it must have had something to do with my decision.” This editor, who had just had a child, asked, “Aren’t you curious to have a child?”
Around the same time, Gaitskill sent the piece to Patricia Towers, senior features editor at Elle, who bought it and gave it what Gaitskill calls a “deep reading,” helping her cut parts that were “too sentimental.” Gaitskill is pleased with the result, which runs a little under 4000 words. “The women’s magazines have so little status,” she says, “but sometimes they publish really good things.”
So why didn’t this piece work out for Harper’s? Charis Conn says the piece “was too meandering ultimately for Lewis [Lapham] and Colin [Harrison].” But there was also something about the content, Conn admits. “The topic is a hot one, and ultimately the fact that [some editors] had kids made them unable to stomach it in a way. It does inflame people.”
Gay Brit Back in Print
On September 12, The New York Review of Books (NYRB) will debut the first 12 titles in its New Classics Series. The series consists of previously
out-of-print books, both fiction and nonfiction, including novels by Richard Hughes, Alberto Moravia,
and Joyce Cary.
But the dark horse of the series may be J.R. Ackerley, a gay Brit who attended Cambridge, befriended E.M. Forster, and became literary editor of the BBC magazine The Listener before his death in 1967. NYRB has bought rights to all four of his books— three memoirs and a novel— which were previously out of print in the U.K. The first Ackerleys in the series are My Father and Myself and My Dog Tulip, a pair of memoirs that are best read in tandem.
My Father and Myself is the coming-of-age story of a clever wag who slept with some “two or three hundred young men” in a matter of years, and for whom, in the long run, “love and sex . . . failed to meet.” Yet Ackerley was always searching for the “Ideal Friend” who would be a source of unconditional love, and he found her at the age of 50 in the form of Tulip, a female Alsatian. As he writes in the appendix to My Father and Myself (which was published posthumously), after this dog entered his life, he “never prowled the London streets again, nor had the slightest inclination to do so.”
In My Dog Tulip, the focus shifts from Ackerley’s sex life to that of his dog (after all, as he notes dotingly, “A full life naturally included the pleasures of sex and maternity”). He introduces the dog he likes to call “my bitch” to several potential studs before making do with a mongrel who succeeds in knocking her up. But that’s not all for Tulip’s adventures. Master has barely finished raving about what a “perfect mother” she is when he gives her puppies away and steers the dog into a new phase: wanton promiscuity. “Whatever the consequences might be she must have carte blanche,” he writes. “She must take her chances, suit herself. She must go free.”
Inspiration for the series struck when the NYRB staff was working on the second edition of The Readers Catalog. According to NYRB publisher Rea Hederman, “We found that of the 40,000 ‘Best Books in Print,’ almost 15,000 were out of print.” His staff asked friends and subscribers for the names of favorite out-of-print books and began tracking down the rights, whereupon they learned that some reprint fees run as low as “a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.”
Hederman has a ready-made market for the Classics Series: subscribers. He says NYRB has always been profitable because of its “enormously high renewal rate,” which he claims is 85 percent for people who have subscribed for two years or more. The current circulation is 130,000. “They know these books,” Hederman says of his subscribers, adding that about a week after the first Classics mailing went out in August, “We began to get orders. Some people have ordered the whole series.”
Hederman believes he will turn a profit if he sells 3000 to 4000 copies of each book, in which case the series may expand to about 50 books a year.