This morning, my post contained a fattish package from Birlinn, who published my history of Gigha, God's Islanders, a couple of years ago. The package contained a very pleasant, albeit apologetic letter from the managing editor. Besides the letter, there was a little wedge of papers, the first three chapters, plus synopsis, of a novel called The Corncrake, which I had submitted to a Scottish publisher called Mercat Press, 'a number of years ago', having heard good things about them from one of their authors. I'm not exactly sure how many years ago, because I don't have my original letter and I had long since assumed that the submission had fallen into the Great Silence which usually befalls unsolicited manuscripts not sent through an agent. In 2007, Mercat merged with Birlinn, and 'some archive material was set aside and subsequently overlooked.' A quick glance at the chapters revealed that they had long, long ago been superseded by other work. What writer stands still for four or five years? Which made it all the more strange that they had 'reviewed it once more but regret that, bearing in mind current market conditions, we do not feel it would be suitable for our current list.'
This put me in mind, very vividly, of a story told with some relish by a friend who (sometimes) writes for television. She was surprised to find in her morning mail, a very old script, with a similar kind of letter. 'We have reviewed this but regret etc etc.' What was even more surprising was that the script had been bought, made and shown by this same company, some years previously...
Since submitting The Corncrake to Mercat all those years ago, I have - of course - moved on. I have a new agent, and the Corncrake itself has been more or less consigned to the dustbin. Writing is a job for me. Not a hobby. To be honest, I have taken a little of the material it contained and have rewritten it, comprehensively, into what amounts to a completely different novel. Both my new agent and I, myself, feel that it is a much better novel. The characters are different, the names are different, the story is dramatically different. Only a little of the setting remains. But even that novel - although I am very fond of it - isn't currently 'on the market' because it too has been superseded by a sweepingly romantic historical tale which my agent and I both feel is potentially more commercial, with the additional possibility of other novels on the same theme.
I suspect that most professional writers would - if an old manuscript came dropping onto the mat - find themselves in much the same position. So while I genuinely appreciate the letter, which was kind, generous, and apologetic - I hope I meet this nice man, one day! - I find the assumption of stasis just a little worrying. But then, perhaps his experience has taught him that many people are content to recycle the same old stuff for ever and a day, without attempting to progress at all.