More Writing About Writing: His White Envelope

Photo by themostinept (copied from Flickr)
Photo by themostinept (copied from Flickr)

Standing, books in hand, on the basement floor of a Waterstones. Trying to decide which way to split a gift token. I seek distraction from the people sat loosely in the seats provided. From the advertising displays, half finished, predicting the new sensations. Behind the counter, the staff moving back, moving forth, offer polite assistance.

We could order that in for you. Check the availability in other stores.

A man approaches me. Answering inner demands. His cheekbones high and forceful. He reaches into a bag. Stained. Falling apart. He says,

Do you mind if I give you this? It’s the first chapter of my friend’s novel.

My initial thought is to disappear into the dark corners of the Erotica section, but I take the envelope. I say,

Ok. Thanks.

He smiles. He nods. I pretend to study the covers of Open City, of Blue Of Noon, while I watch him make his way across the floor, while I watch him watching others, in stilted poses.

Can I help you Sir?

I turn to find a woman obscured by the heavy trolley she is pushing.

Sorry. Miles away.

I step back. Narrowly avoiding the table. Sign posted. AMERICAN DREAMS. With Faulkner, McCullers and Hemingway. Stacked high. Glossy. She says,

Was there something specific you were looking for?

I wave the copies of Open City and Blue Of Noon as if they are pompoms. She smiles. She pushes the trolley on, to stack the shelves, to pass the time. I look round for my literary pilgrim. He is gone.


On the street, wrapped in the sounds of car engines keen at traffic lights, I wonder if passers by carry the same white envelope as me. If we have perhaps been initiated into a new trend, the spirit of the age in high definition. I walk towards the galleries, the showbiz lights, to a friend with news to share. Snatches of conversation, coughs and sneezes, disrupt my thinking. I shuffle inside the agreed coffee shop. Find a table, in the corner by a mass-produced painting. I watch a woman writing between the repetitive glances at sleepwalkers, while a Talking Heads song leaks out of the speakers, reminding me of an ex-girlfriend, her need for meaning. I used to lie on her bed, staring at the ceiling, as she, half-naked, went through photographs spread over the wooden floor. Arranging them in orders based on new concepts, she said,

It has nothing to do with talent you know. It’s about being in the right place.

Was this about that? His white envelope. His publishing revolution. Lo-fi. Writers send out work everyday, hoping, waiting, on publishers, their opinions, their industry insights. We could bypass this though, self-publish, easier than ever before, but the writers I know don’t discuss it. Why? Are we confined to operate within one fixed structure? Are we wired to an ageing form, unable to move on? Feeling ill equipped. Feeling isolated. I bury my thoughts in a new, highly praised, book. This is my release.


After a few pages of Open City, when the carousel of customers has caused a background change, my friend appears. She is supposed to lead into something good, her new career, in a new part of town. She says,

Can we get out of here?

You’ve just arrived.

We’ll walk and talk.

I pick up my bag. We make our way outside. The noise hits me first, then the cold. I dodge and weave through groups refusing to part. I say,


Well after an hour of telling me how tough her boyfriend finds advertising. She said we should stay in touch. When I have a bit more experience, we should do coffee. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?

Her lips begin to tremble. Tears welling reflect the electric shades of neon. Blue. Green. Pink. To change the subject I tell her about my Waterstones scene.

Wow. Ok. It’s guerrilla marketing now. It’s ambushing casual shoppers.

I don’t think it’ll catch on.

You know it’s probably a work of genius.

You know that word is over used.

The space between us closes in as the streets become narrow, as people pour out onto the pavement. She puts her hands in her pockets. Speaks abstractly, at pace, about Anselm Kiefer, about Ulrike Meinhof. That Talking Heads song, ‘Found a Job’, comes back to me. It’s about this couple that start making their own television programmes. Once again my ex-loves words exert a monopoly on my feelings,

It has nothing to do with talent you know. It’s about being in the right place.

There is logic behind this yes, but does it apply to writing, to all of the arts, or just what she saw as the confines of her suspected limitations? I turn to my friend. I say,

You could set up your own galley you know. I could self-publish on-line.

You wouldn’t self-publish. You’re too much of an aesthetic. You need the physical.

Vizinczey self-published In Praise Of Older Women.

Yes, in the sixties.

Virginia Woolf self-published.

She shrugs her shoulders. This isn’t what she wants to talk about. Yes, a friend of hers is starting his own theatre company. A friend of hers has set up her own record label. But they have capital. They have contacts. It is different for her. It is different for writers.


Theatre companies, record labels, these are joint ventures. A writer telling you their work is great, with no outside appreciation. It arouses suspicion.

Are you saying we can’t choose what we like on our own?

I’m saying it’s easier for a writer when someone else says they’re great.

We stop outside the underground station. She is going east, to see a performance art piece. Do I want to come? I can be her plus one. I say,

I have an assignment due. I should be getting home.

We say our goodbyes. We part.


On the train, heading south, I take out his white envelope. Open it. Carefully unfold the crisp paper. A small white card drops into my lap. It says if I like what I read I can go to the web address provided. I can download the rest for the price of a cup of coffee.

The idealist in me supports this, he wants to see a market change, but the romantic wants his Picador cover design, his name in bold on the spine. For many writers the conflict is the same, self-publishing is the domain of the vanity project, an act of desperation. Technology has altered this argument though, and the success stories are forcing opinions to change. Yes, publishers still need to sell, and writers still want to be read, but the challenges faced continue to change depending on your side of the fence. Whatever happens, I believe that each will find their place; it’s just that we’ll have to ask some tough questions in order to redefine it.

Reece Choules

About Reece Choules

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

Leave a Comment