There used to be those who baulked at the idea of people working from home because they thought it gave rise to more unprofessional behaviour. That instead of logging on dutifully at 9am and working through, you would crawl out of bed at 11am and clock off at 4pm to catch up on "The Crown". But I always found my working week more productive because I could work from home.
It worked for me because I managed to build a clear demarcation in my week: the first half was in the office, prefaced with the most outlandish outfits I could find (bright purple suede boots was a feature) with some bold lipstick choices. There was a lot of office chatter, a lot of lunches filled with conspiratorial conversations in rooms with soft lighting. And then the end of the week was my considered time: to sit in my yellow armchair in decade old leggings and read. I would think, edit, strategize. It was a life in balance.
But now – ugh, I hate working from home. Because the boundaries between personal and professional have not so much merged as been thrown into a shit blender with a dose of parental guilt and private frustrations and whisked into a concoction I am forced to drink again and again, every day, without reprieve. Well, I don’t do smoothies. I’m a rum and coke girl – thank you very much.
Yet here we are. Again. All of us now thrust into combining our professional life with our personal in our kitchens, bedrooms and garden sheds – if you’re lucky to have a garden. And while there are memes and snapshots much cleverer and funnier than I can provide to depict the state of the nation right now, the undertone is pretty much the same: we are not okay.
If you are, I am genuinely glad for you because in this case, misery does not like company. But in case you haven’t found fulfilment or spiritual respite in lockdown, then this is for you.
So much of what we do in our world is about exerting control: it is literally in the title as an agent – to have a sense of agency over the lives and careers of our authors. Every aspect of our industry is about taming the chaos and harnessing our creative energies to form a sellable product. But how do we do this in a world where we cannot meet, cannot touch, cannot inspire and frankly, are struggling to be inspired? Instead, we find ourselves in a liminal state where we cannot step back and cannot move forward, and yet somehow must carry on: must exert control, must publish, must write. Must be professional.
Yet the joys that we found in this process have been stripped away. The small but necessary acts of replenishment taken from us, and still we carry on as normal; drawing on a Blitz-type spirit which may have been woven in the generations before us, but which lie pretty much dormant in our DNA right now. We do it though, because we love what we do. We remember how during the lowest points in our lives, we derived meaning from characters on a page, solace in their hopes and dreams, inspiration in their acts and empathy in their failures. And we are here precisely because those stories saw us too, and even saved us, and because we want to find and save all those out there under covers, in cold parks or in crowded rooms and yet utterly alone. To show them that we see their needs and can meet their wants.
However, I think we are finding that this is not a bottomless well, and it is not just us feeling this but the authors we fight for. They are concerned for their future and weary of their present. And we do not have the answers we used to – I remember once sitting next to a senior agent at a dinner and asking him how he still found the ability to know what to do when publishing was always changing. He said that after a while, the runes always read the same. I wonder now whether he would still agree with that, given the utter chaos the world finds itself in.
The issue at the heart of this – for me – is this imperative to remain professional. By which I mean the conservative theory of professionalism. A professional works in an office and answers calls without having to excuse themselves because their six-year-old needs to know why we’ve run out of Penguin biscuits and does not let their personal life, their personal issues, interrupt the flow of their work product ever. A professional is always collected and always has an answer. A professional is only about the work; everything else is unknown, not even hinted at.
And if you are able to do that – good for you. Please write a book and we can sell it and then everyone can learn the secret and we will never need to feel like this again.
But if you are not – if, like me, your personal life is crashing into your work because your work is LITERALLY in the kitchen where the child is and the reason you don’t have Penguin biscuits is because you comfort-ate them the night before while trying to edit a manuscript so you have time the next day to home school and still meet your deadlines – if that is you, I see you.
If you don’t have a child, but the lethargy of not seeing your family and friends is making you want to lie under a duvet with 90s nostalgia playing on a loop in the background - I see you.
You’re not unprofessional. You’re coping.
See, I don’t believe that depiction of professionalism is really working for us right now. Because right now, we are battling. Right now, we need to redefine what being a professional is. And sometimes that means saying no I can’t take that call, I need an extension on that deadline. Sometimes that means stopping at 4pm and having a long bath to give yourself 20 minutes of letting your brain settle so you can actually think in a meaningful way. It means having difficult conversations but feeling a glimmer of relief at the honesty. It doesn’t mean you’re not good at your job, it doesn’t mean you don’t care. It just means we’re in a pandemic. It’s not business as normal.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? Is there not liberation in not having to hide some elements of your private life, out of the fear of looking less competent? In having to say you need to end a call at a time to collect your child from nursery, or for a plumber to fix a boiler? That we are not automatons, who live only for work but have lives in general?
It will be. It absolutely will be. The purple boots will have their moment again.
Just not right now. And when they do, I will enjoy those decade-old leggings so much more.
Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was nominated for Agent of the Year in 2018 and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016.
- 'A professional, properly funded arts scene is crucial'
- New publisher launches e-books for business professionals
- CILIP launches new BAME network for library professionals
- Supermarkets 'putting the squeeze on books', say trade professionals
- Frankfurt finale sees 200,000 access the virtual fair's professional content