'Writing is not about money'

'Writing is not about money'

<p>Robin Robertson, the formidable deputy publisher of literary powerhouse Jonathan Cape, has much to crow about. His long-nurtured authors are enjoying a run of laurels: Anne Enright scooped last year&#39;s Man Booker Prize, while A L Kennedy and Jean Sprackland have won their respective categories in the Costa Book Awards&mdash;leaving Robertson in the enviable position of having to switch between tables at this Tuesday&#39;s ceremony.</p><p>Meanwhile Robertson is himself now a poet of genuine international renown. His highly-charged third collection, <em>Swithering </em>(Picador), won the 2006 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Sundial Scottish Arts Council Poetry Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Then there&#39;s the matter of his fresh translation of Euripides&#39; great tragedy <em>Medea</em> (Vintage Classics, March), already hailed as &quot;triumphant&quot; by John Banville.</p><p>Yet while Robertson is deeply satisfied that &quot;some writers who I&#39;ve worked with for 17 or 18 years are finally getting the kind of rewards they deserve&quot;, he prefers to dwell on the missed chances. &quot;For every success there are dozens of failures&mdash;books that deserved major attention but slipped away. Part of you dies every time.&quot; It&#39;s no surprise that his cluttered desk is piled with unsold copies of his 2003 anthology Mortification, where writers told toe-curling stories of their public shame.</p><p>When asked to name his publishing landmarks, he reluctantly cites Irvine Welsh&#39;s 1993 <em>Trainspotting</em>. &quot;It hit the dreaded &#39;Z-word&#39;, the zeitgeist, and sold a million copies,&quot; he recalls. &quot;But none of that had anything to do with me&mdash;so much is always luck. At least it made my life easier: all editors have books they carry with them as talismans to offer protection from the dark side.&quot; He&#39;d rather discuss forgotten gems like<em> Death and Nightingales</em> by Eugene McCabe or <em>Ulverton</em> by Adam Thorpe (&quot;I can&#39;t think of a more perfectly formed and thrillingly inventive first novel&mdash;it had everything&quot;).</p><p>A Random House colleague describes Robertson as &quot;taciturn&quot;. He&#39;s certainly considered and precise, but his manner belies a dry humour. Not a regular on the launch or lunch circuits, he prefers to spend his time in the company of novelists and poets, and refuses to play the hyping game. &quot;I&#39;m not one of those editors who runs around with a megaphone&mdash;&#39;building a book in-house&#39; is the ghastly phraseology,&quot; he winces. &quot;There&#39;s an awful lot of ego in publishing which I find distracting and distasteful.&quot;</p><p>Instead his attention is on that unfashionable concept: literary quality, and writers who have an &quot;unswerving belief&quot; in their art. &quot;I can only trust my visceral instinct. If the work is powerful and fresh and intellectually nutritious to me, then it is worth taking on. The last thing I think about is how many copies it will sell. I&#39;ve never been in a job where I&#39;ve had to consider any commercial aspects. I&#39;m not interested in the industrial side of publishing&mdash;it&#39;s a cultural pursuit with grave responsibilities and enormous excitements. This isn&#39;t DC Thomson, this is Jonathan Cape.&quot;</p><p>It is a mark of how quickly the trade has changed that this uncompromising approach is so shocking. &quot;I&#39;m in an unusually lucky position to maintain this rather grand aesthetic,&quot; he admits. &quot;Cape is protected by its extraordinary backlist and some of the wonderful writers Dan [Franklin, publisher] has taken on. The only restraints are the size of the list&mdash;we can&#39;t buy everything we want to buy because the stable is so strong.&quot;</p><p>One can see why his authors are so loyal, and take his forthright feedback with utmost seriousness. &quot;Writing, indeed all art, is not about success or money, though both are very useful. It&#39;s a much more arcane journey, and one has to commit to it. You need freedom&mdash;spacial, financial, temporal&mdash;to do what you want to do, and support from your publisher through thick and thin.&quot; Practically, this can translate into paying an &quot;advance on the advance&quot; to help a struggling writer through, or even monthly stipends.</p><p>He&#39;s depressed about the prospects of those who don&#39;t win a major prize, get big marketing spend or appear on &quot;Richard &amp; Judy&quot; (which he charmingly describes as a &quot;breakfast talent show&quot;).</p><p>&quot;We&#39;ve reached a very dangerous moment culturally in this country,&quot; he intones. &quot;Somebody has to take cultural responsibility&mdash;there aren&#39;t any arbiters in place.&quot; When he started out in the 1980s, editors, booksellers and newspaper literary sections were &quot;working vigorously, with some cohesion, to try to bring the best work into the hands of the public. I don&#39;t think anybody could argue that&#39;s the situation now.&quot; Meanwhile the market is &quot;flooded with the second, third and fourth rate. So how does anybody know what to read?&quot;</p><p>One of his personal responses is to turn to the ancients. Hating the &quot;dusty&quot; Penguin and OUP translations of <em>Medea</em>, he wants his version to show how the play is &quot;utterly fresh and valid . . . twisted relationships, hidden desire&mdash;this isn&#39;t 2,500 years old, it&#39;s hardwired into our make-up.&quot;<br /><br /><strong>Rural retreats</strong></p><p>Robertson&#39;s poetry is rural&mdash;stark imagery of falconry, forests, fishermen&mdash;and riven with his native Scots dialect. So it is a surprise to find he commutes full-time to Vauxhall Bridge Road from Hammersmith, where he lives with his two teenage daughters, and only puts pen to paper at occasional writers&#39; retreats. &quot;I don&#39;t live in London,&quot; he insists, &quot;or rather emotionally I don&#39;t. It&#39;s not at all satisfactory and I wouldn&#39;t be here if it weren&#39;t for the job. But only two or three people in this country can earn a living from poetry.&quot;</p><p>Nor does he feel the need to pretend that the editing and writing sides of his life are in glorious harmony. &quot;They are almost entirely in opposition, in a frictional and damaging way. I don&#39;t know anyone else who suffers quite in this fashion.&quot; Dwelling in other authors&#39; worlds stymies his own creativity, he says. &quot;To be a successful editor you have to steep yourself in their style, adapt your sensibility to theirs. You can&#39;t then go home and write a poem. You need to detox from those voices, the work, the whole London despoilation.&quot;</p><p>Perhaps this struggle fuels his muse&mdash;Kennedy describes Robertson the poet as &quot;master of the dark and wounded, the torn complexities of human relations&quot;. At various points in our interview he mockingly refers to himself as &quot;outmoded&quot;, a King Canute figure, and &quot;some sort of flagellant&quot;. But his final message is typically uncompromising: &quot;Art is difficult and I don&#39;t see why we should shy away from it. We live in such a disposable age that anything that needs a second thought is ignored. We are missing out on the real sustenance.&quot;</p>