I can still remember anxiously waiting for my first paper to appear. It must have been in 1976, because I know I had submitted the paper under my married name, although at the time the wedding was still some weeks (possibly even months) away. Someone remarked I must have been very confident to do this, but – of all the anxieties I may have felt about my first journal article appearing in print – I don’t think fear of being jilted figuratively at the altar was one of them. I was right on that front, and I think I was also right – given I got married during my PhD and hence very early in my scientific career – to make a clean sweep of changing my name. Not for me the concerns of having a string of papers under one name and then having to make that decision about whether to keep a professional name separate from the married name. I know it is an issue that troubles many (women of course, less prevalent for men) who marry at a later stage.
I may now have many papers under my name and even a co-authored technical book on liquid crystalline polymers, first published more than 30 years ago and its second edition 17 years old, but it is a departure to worry about a so-called ‘trade’ book. Until recently I hadn’t even heard of this category of non-fiction written for a general audience, but that is the grouping in which my new book Not Just for the Boys, why we need more women in science – all of 10 days old in the market – sits. It is providing me with a whole new set of worries regarding its reception. These go beyond the standard set of worries for any publication about the discovery of typos and other errors. A couple of minor inaccuracies have already been pointed out to me, which is annoying but not worse than that. As was said to me, such can be corrected in the paperback: I wish. No surety that will ever happen.
But for a book which aspires to a wide readership, not just of practicing scientists but of those who will influence the practicing scientists of the future, or (alternatively) deter them from ever setting out on that path, I worry that it may fail to make its mark. That it will, like so many others before and no doubt hereafter, vanish into deserved obscurity. As I prepare for my first book shop talk in the Edinburgh Toppings (a pleasantly independent shop), I fear I will meet with the common fate of authors of having no one turn up, or only what one might term ‘Rabbit’s friends and relations’. This, I believe, is only too common and it’s hard to see how it could be anything other than gutting. All that emotion expended in preparing a scintillating talk, as one hopes, and no one to hear it.
So far, the three reviews that I have seen have been kind but – let’s face it – I am still waiting for the axe to fall. It is hard to imagine any academic, possibly any author or creator of any description, not waiting for harsh criticism. After all, in our regular publications or grant applications, criticism is exactly what one expects, sometimes justified but quite often not. We may not be as fearful as Dmitri Shostakovitch when he wrote his 5th symphony. In the face of prior criticism from Stalin to his previous creation Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at that point he probably feared for his life, exile to a gulag or retribution falling on his family, and so he allowed the symphony to be described as ‘“a Soviet artist’s creative answer to just criticism.” Those fates are not close to the top of my mind right now. But there is still plenty of scope for vitriol and scorn. People being enthusiastic about the scope of the book as written up in the publisher’s blurb is not the same thing as people actually enjoying it or the book reaching its mark of stretching the thinking of policy-makers, parents and teachers.
I had hoped that my appearance on Woman’s Hour this past week might enable the book to reach a different sort of audience than I can achieve though Twitter or a couple of bookshop appearances but, perhaps inevitably, my contribution was truncated from what the producer had indicated due to a lengthy discussion of the incredibly important if harrowing topic of eating disorders and their treatment (or lack of it). I’m hoping my appearance at the Hay Literary Festival (event 188 on May 30th) in 10 days time offers another opportunity to reach an audience consisting of not-my-standard followers (as well as scope to fall on my face, metaphorically if not literally).
Maybe prolific authors of whatever genre shake off these feelings of being an impostor and being found out as the creators of drivel or inaccurate old hat, but I doubt I will write enough books to reach that happy state. So, I approach each appearance and interview with apprehension, and I suspect I always will.