‘So, what are you working on?’
‘My book, The Office.’
This is a memoir about writing – about how deeply you can grow to detest it. From a purveyor of nonfiction, this might come as a surprise. It’s the novelists and the poets with the inner lives and the psychic wounds, right? We’re meant to pursue writing as an exercise of the rational intellect, except perhaps a permissible enthusiasm for our subjects. It’s partly such assumptions that compel my describing the emotional trajectory I took in compiling my latest book, The Office.
I can’t remember a blinding flash when I had ‘the idea’ for a history of offices, office work and office life. It seemed, rather, an idea I’d always had – a book I wanted to read that seemed unlikely to be written unless I did it myself. Quite simply, we are a world of office workers, and have become so in the space of roughly a century. How did a society that once grew and made things come to find meaning in lives with outcomes so apparently immaterial? It has sometimes seemed to me that we are most human at work, precisely when we are doing our best to hide it.
I finally grew serious about The Office four years ago, while I was working on a book called The Racket which examined, in quite granular detail, the corrupt and claustrophobic world of illegal abortion in Melbourne in the 1960s. After delving into a subject so intensely intimate, local and of its time, I was excited by the prospect of a new book so obviously panoramic, global and evolving. Much of the journalism I have done, in fact, has involved teasing out small stories to reveal their largeness – always engaging and exciting, but committing me essentially to the exploration of a broadly definable country of knowledge. The Office was a country with indistinct and porous borders, as well as a mysterious interior.
These are exquisite moments in a writer’s life – like the budding of a romance – when everything seems possible and nothing appears off-limits. But romance, of course, obscures practicalities. I had little idea how I would tackle the subject, what the book would look like, its tone, its length, its depth, its presentation, its market – things in which publishers are necessarily interested. Having always eschewed an agent, I was the salesman for The Office long before I was its researcher and writer, angling for an advance to sustain me for the three years I estimated the task would take.
What would you expect to be paid for three years of your time? Here is a disjunction in Australian publishing: the most enthusiastic and imaginative publishers are the ones with no money; caution grows with size. One independent publisher whom I really liked and who immediately twigged to the book’s possibilities offered $5000. From the bigger end of town, meanwhile, I can summarise the response as: ‘We like your work but, you know, what we’d really like is to publish a big book by Gideon Haigh.’
This expression I heard again and again, a big book being either one written by Peter FitzSimons, or one concerning an already overexposed athlete, media proprietor or warrior. The Office was huge, but it was not big: it featured no well-known celebrity or public figure, and it was nobody’s idea of fun. ‘I spend most of my time trying to get out of the office!’ joked one publisher. ‘God, that’s funny,’ I said.
I could not point to a personal track record of commercial success – quite the contrary. I could not point to a similar book that had succeeded – which always makes publishers feel better. Worst of all, perhaps, I was proposing a book that was not particularly Australian – the kind of book that multinational publishers rely on from their parent companies. Australian non-fiction authors are meant to interpret Australia, or at least guarantee a decidedly Australian angle. The Office was always a long-distance romance. I had not understood the taboos until I tried to breach them.
To boil it down, a field of about 15 publishers with whom I shared the idea steadily shrank to two who could make a business case in the hope of a foreign-rights sale – in other words, selling it abroad, coals to Newcastle. I settled on Melbourne University Publishing – whose commissioning editor, Foong Ling Kong, I knew, liked and respected – and it proved a good choice. MUP offered by far the largest advance I had ever accepted, and arguably far more than I deserved given my prior sales, the state of the economy, and the uncertainties besetting the publishing industry. It was also, when spaced over three years, less than two-thirds the minimum wage, and after the expenditure of approximately a third on various research activities, it would work out to an hourly rate of… Well, if you ever did those sums you’d find a vocation more lucrative, like holding stop signs near roadworks.
That’s okay, by the way: they are the rules, and have been for the 25 years since I first became a published author. I’m luckier than most in being able to turn my hand to newspaper and magazine journalism to subsidise my writing of books. But I do so of necessity: it’s the equivalent of taking in washing or waiting tables, done for continuity of cash flow. Let’s just say I had a few needs. In the year after signing my contract, I squeezed in three experiences that sit high in the rankings of those regarded as life-altering: I wed Charlotte, became a parent to Cecilia, and abandoned the closest thing I had to a job, my role as a regular contributor to The Monthly, because of its scurvy treatment of then editor Sally Warhaft. I had, in short, halved my income while multiplying my responsibilities.
I partly remedied the former by accepting offers to cover the 2009 Ashes series in England from Business Spectator and The Times. Charlotte and I had always intended making this a form of honeymoon, then visiting Europe and the United States on the way home as a kind of field trip, taking in places of historic office interest. We ended up doing so during Charlotte’s second trimester, which made it all the more bonding an experience. Otherwise, we economised. We took no more holidays. We bought no gifts. We drove a bomb. We made do and mended. My only breaks would be to report the Test matches of the 2010–11 and 2011–12 summers; Charlotte had none. She had married a man already in a torrid relationship with his book.
I’ll not discuss researching The Office in depth here – that is for another forum, perhaps – but it was like starting in a circular room ringed with a host of unlit corridors, each stretching an immeasurable distance. You headed down each corridor not quite knowing how you would navigate your way back, because each had its own host of capillary corridors, twisting this way and that, which might actually intersect with other corridors, but which might equally lead nowhere.
Some of these corridors I had a sneaking familiarity with: I have always been interested in the history of the pseudo-science of management. Others I groped down sightlessly: my prior knowledge of architecture would barely have covered an A4 page. Most of the time, at least initially, I was just looking, proceeding steadily from one source to the next, following a thread or a theme, laying down about a million words of notes. The Office’s source list eventually extending to almost 1500 books (not to mention more than 100 movies and television series). Because I would take several corridors at a time, I’d regularly bump into myself coming the other way, as it were. These were exciting moments, revealing the world in a new light, full of new relations and possibilities.
Being in a day-to-day sense quite esoteric, however, these explorations also sealed me off from others. When you are deep in a book, it’s my experience that you check out of life a little; to others you look like you’re there, but you’re never completely present. You try talking, but you can’t quite tune in; you try listening to people, but you can’t quite concentrate. You’re working harder than ever, but you have little to show for it, and it grows ever harder to explain what you are up to: at the instant somebody asks, you’re probably attempting a dozen different things, none of them really intelligible to an outsider because they may or may not form part of an as-yet inconceivable whole.
Writing made me still poorer company. Writing forms an iterative loop with research, for it’s only in articulating an issue that shortcomings in awareness and argument are exposed. ‘Reading and writing go on simultaneously,’ explained E.H. Carr in his classic primer What Is History?, describing his work processes in terms that were immediately familiar to me:
The writing is added to, subtracted from, reshaped, cancelled, as I go on reading. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I am looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find.
The more, too, I found myself in a cycle of seemingly endless recursions, as themes demanded further elaborations, and elaborations revealed further themes.
Once Charlotte gave birth to Cecilia, I realised I had no small talk whatsoever. I lost interest in anything beyond my work and my home, and even they were in tension – there was a little guilt in attending to each, because the other was always lurking. In order to shoehorn 13 or 14 hours’ work into each day, I started early, usually at 5am, and finished late, putting time in after 10pm. I strove to keep early evenings free, and my study door open as a tiny gesture of integration with the rest of the household. But I can’t say I was great use as a new father, and sometimes I was no use at all. I could perform mechanical duties, a few of them handy. I could, for instance, relieve Charlotte by walking the streets with Cecilia as she cried her little lungs out. But – and it’s a lamentable admission – I was probably thinking about offices while doing so.
It’s possible that my sensations of isolation while writing this book were the more desolating because there was a wife and daughter nearby. I’d always imagined myself temperamentally suited to a monastic life; now it did not seem such a natural fit. Whatever the case, it intrigues me when young writing aspirants anticipate joining some sort of ‘literary society’. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there’s really no such thing. Writing is solitary, drudgerous, enervating, its inspirational moments few compared to the long periods staring at a passage already rewritten 20 times, contemplating how it might be improved by a twenty-first attempt. A long-term non-fiction project is a little like rowing a boat towards the horizon without quite knowing what lies beyond. Soon enough you’re in dark water with no sign of land in any direction, and no choice but to keep rowing, concentrating on each stroke to keep from wondering where and when you will arrive.
Or even whether there’s any point. As my book grew, so did its apparent readership contract in the wake of the collapse of REDGroup, which owned the Borders and Angus & Roberton bookstores. Each time I updated Foong Ling on my progress, she brought news of the market’s regress, how feebly books were selling, how defensive publishers had grown. As weeks became months, and months years, I began dreading visits to bookstores, because I could not help scanning the shelves of product gussied up to arrest the browsing eye and wonder where a 200,000-word book about offices could possibly fit, if at all; the only books as large as mine looked like being were cook books, and in a straight fight I did not fancy my chances against Movida.
Each morning, as I began the writing day, I’d brood a little on a world without my task. How pleasant it would be simply to sweep the desk clean and watch Peppa Pig on my laptop with Cecilia. Soon enough, to be sure, I would be immersed, and the subject never ceased to hold my fascinated interest, and to amaze me in the places it led. Sentences would turn into a block of text; the block would be chiselled and carved into a paragraph; the paragraph would be further polished and refined; the darlings would be methodically killed; maybe the whole thing would, after all, be cut. If it never felt all that good, there were days it felt less bad, in between the occasional days where in every direction lay apparent folly. ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’: Beckett’s concluding line in The Unnamable has almost unimprovable application to writing at length.
Did I ever lose the urge to continue? No: the guilt would have been too profound, and the pre-existing investment too great to write off. Besides, I’m a journalist, and journalists are conditioned to regarding publication as integral to the writing process and deadlines as much a matter of life and death as the word implies. Towards the end, nonetheless, I was experiencing feelings equal but opposite to those I had experienced at the beginning, like symptoms of depression that envelop you at the end of a soured relationship: sleeplessness, lethargy, loss of appetite, sensations of worthlessness, anxiety, agitation. Where was that note? Who was that bloke? Why hadn’t I written that goddamn citation down properly? I grew, quite frankly, to hate everything I had done to the point that I could barely look at it. This is a stage I recognised for having passed through previously: in fact, I’ve never yet finished a manuscript without wanting to fling it on the fire. As the book neared publication, I could feel only a vague sense of relief seasoned with regret and anticlimax. Rumer Godden was right to observe that ‘for a dyed-in-the-wool author nothing is so dead as a book once it is written’.
Yet perhaps that’s why the dyed-in-the-wool author always feels compelled to write their next book. I do know that however trying grew the daily regime of writing The Office, its cessation has left a yawning hole in my life. I feel a dull ache from the need to fall in love again, to start work on another book I’ll in due course grow unable to talk about.