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Concept Check: The Book Doula

Doubtful About Doulas?

The Matera Women’s Fiction Festival [1] in Italy includes an international writers conference [2]. The conference was on hiatus last year. A lot of us were glad when the event’s longtime (tireless) driver Elizabeth Jennings and her fine associates including Rebecca Riches and Mariateresa Cascino were able to get it back onto the calendar this year, in late September.

The conference’s programming was even better filled out than in the past and included its traditional one-on-one sessions with speakers. I enjoy those because they give me a chance to meet attendees. Jennings and her administration provide simultaneous translation in English and Italian (and a translator at the table when I meet with an Italian speaker in a one-on-one).

And while it’s set in the context of the Women’s Fiction Festival, this is a good event for guys to attend, too. Nothing being offered at the conference won’t help male writers as well as women, don’t let that scare you off if you’re a man and thinking about going in the future.

In walking into the Fondazione Le Monacelle with Jennings just before I spoke, she mentioned to me that a topic of interest this year at the event was the concept of the “book doula.”

Part of the interest had been sparked by Olga Mecking’s writeup in London at The Guardian [3] about doulas earlier last month.

And if you’re feeling hesitant about all this, doula Ariane Conrad’s site [4] won’t do a lot to make you feel better. She’s all in. Although she’s doing this for nonfiction, it could just as easily be fiction, and she’s talking “bookbirthing” (one word).

Some of her descriptive copy will put off anyone but your Kumbaya-singing aunt. Such as:

“You will probably make me cry…in a good way. We will probably crack each other up. I will tell you when there is spinach in your teeth. We will probably become lifelong friends.”

And:

“We might plan a week-long retreat to refine the concept, draft an outline, or power through some writing. We might schedule weekly Skype meetings to keep you buoyant and productive. If cajoling doesn’t work, I will be stern about deadlines.”

And here’s a ghostly line:

“You might ask me to write a draft that you can make your own. I might interview you and shape a strong, consistent narrative from the material. I will probably do background research, editing, proofing.”

As much as I do to encourage and promote professionalism in writing–because I want the industry to have to respond with its most professional service and support for its authors–I’m skeptical of this.

For one thing, I worry that there’s an unintended sexism in this metaphoric conflation of childbirth and writing, a suggestion that women might need special help from a literary midwife. Perhaps that’s too strong a reaction. But I can’t see a guy heading out for a retreat with his doula, can you? Am I knee-jerking? Okay, a lot of us are super-sensitized to the sexism ingrained in our culture right now.

But if we put aside the gender question (how about a “book mechanic” for the guys?–shoot me now) what sort of need is being answered here, even ostensibly?

Dialing for Doulas
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

My provocation for you today is to offer some potential contexts–rationales, reactions–in which this “book doula” concept has arrived, and I’d be interested to hear from you with reactions of your own. So here are some to start the discussion.

Let’s say you’re Dialing for Doulas. Maybe this is because:

Or is this just another “author services” costume for someone to wear while collecting money from aspiring writers?

The UK has a tradition of a “literary consultancy” at which you get edits, design assists, mentoring, and so forth. The best known is called, cleverly enough, The Literary Consultancy [5] (TLC) and you can see that it’s a very knees-up effort with everything from retreats in the Andalucian mountains to conferences, editing of all kinds, manuscript assessment, a lot about mentoring–and maybe that’s what a doula does. TLC will even get to a stage of recommending your work to an agent–their Quality Liaison Officer, mon dieu, handles this–if its personnel decide you’re publishable. So it may be that the UK market is more receptive to the idea of a book doula than the US or other markets might be, based on years of operation by literary consultancies there.

What do you think about this doula concept? Are you more welcoming to the idea? Can you see other rationales for a writer going for this kind of service? Should I open up a matchmaker service that helps writers find the perfect book doula?

About Porter Anderson [6]

@Porter_Anderson [7] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [8], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [9] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [10]

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