Authors are a twitchy, malcontent bunch. To write at all, we let in the world, with all its ugliness and terror. Writing itself is a solitary process that reinforces our worst fears, and sharing our work with the world can leave us wracked with nerves and self doubt. So when, earlier this year, several editorial assistants and agents publicly left the industry, citing low pay and long working hours, the ripple effect among us twitchy author folk was... unpleasant. After all, if they, the perceived gatekeepers of our dreams, were struggling, what hope was left for us?
Since then, we’ve also had to contend with postpandemic PTSD, a war, a crashing stock market, and a few agonizing U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Hope can be hard to come by these days. And yet, as authors, hope is our job. Every story, no matter how bleak or dystopian, offers a guiding light.
As a woman, and an author of color, writing either dystopia or hope in a generally white publishing industry can be rife with land mines. It’s common to get feedback that our protagonists aren’t likable or relatable, that they don’t show the agency that readers have come to expect after a yearslong steady diet of muscled superheroes who solve problems only through violence. Because in writing, as in life, people of color are supposed to single-handedly solve multi-generational systemic problems with a smile on their face.
My novel Driving by Starlight was included in a Publishers Weekly Flying Starts feature in 2018. It tells the story of Leena Hadi, who navigates the dystopian world of surveillance, gender segregation, and religious police in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Reviewers have compared it to The Handmaid’s Tale, pointing out the keening, high-stakes terrain that women must navigate when their choices are policed by the state.
But Driving by Starlight wasn’t immediately accepted by publishers. On the first submission, the book was universally rejected as being too bleak, particularly for the YA genre. My agent and I had a very thoughtful conversation about that feedback. What was my goal with the story? What did I want readers to walk away with? The answer was hope, but not the conventionally Western idea of hope, where the protagonist must “fight back” even if the price is death. Leena’s salvation is in community, in the friendships she makes with other women, so that together they might break out of the cage.
Hope requires agency on the parts of everyone involved in a book—the author, the protagonist, the agent, the editor, and the publisher. The author must not just believe in their story and that it’s worth telling but act as such, rewriting and revising until the message is so clear it’s undeniable. The protagonist must believe in the possibility of a better world and act to take themselves there, whether or not they actually get there. If a protagonist does not feel hope, their successes become no more than luck, and their tragedies don’t rouse any feeling. An agent must believe in the author and the book enough to submit it to publishers, often multiple times before it’s accepted. Every editorial assistant in publishing is an agent of hope, believing in books enough to stake their reputations and careers on there being readers for them.
That’s rather a lot of hope needed as an engine behind a book’s success. Where does it come from, if not from the author? I’ve recently been following Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series, after watching the TV show on Netflix. The story tackles some difficult and dark themes—from bullying and discrimination to eating disorders, mental illness and assault—but the messages of love and hope are so abundant that every moment feels like a hug. It’s no surprise that Oseman’s Kickstarter project to fund her writing was so successful, or that she has lifted the work of other artists on her webcomic through guest posts.
Anyone who can do some basic arithmetic could have predicted the exodus from publishing. If most authors can’t live off writing, how can those who only succeed when the author does do any better? However, all is not lost: a lot of those leaving publishing are setting up as freelance editors, and one couldn’t ask for better reviewers of a work’s marketability than those who have been on the publishing side of the house. And, as Oseman’s story shows, when a story really reaches people’s hearts, every barrier falls away.
Can an author believe in their story so much, in what it has to offer to the world, that they can nurture the spark of hope into a blazing inferno? Because that’s what publishing needs. It’s what the world needs, now more than ever: for every writer to become an agent of hope.
Anat Deracine is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight and many short stories, as well as a cocreator of the webcomic The Night Wolves.