Rebecca Swift, writer’s friend who supported voices of the marginalised
Founder of literary consultancy was ‘always on the author’s side but tough as hell about bad writing’
19 May, 2017 — By Emily Finch
Rebecca Swift at TLC’s anniversary symposium. PICTURE: ELIXABETE LÓPEZ
REBECCA Swift, a Highbury-born literary force who championed the works of marginalised writers, has died aged 53.
With just £600 and an idea conceived while working at Virago Press, Ms Swift set up The Literary Consultancy (TLC), the world’s first fee-paying editing company open to submissions from writers of all abilities, in 1996.
TLC started in her Crouch End flat, but eventually moved to its current Clerkenwell base, at the charity Free Word Centre, in 2009.
Her company bridged the gap between authors and the cut-throat publishing industry, where manuscripts are often rejected with scant explanation, by offering professional, detailed feedback to aspiring writers.
As its director, she would not only be on the lookout for talented new writers but took great care in responding to those who may never quite make it via traditional publishing routes.
At TLC’s 20th anniversary conference in November last year, she responded to a quote by the late Christopher Hitchens, who said some books should remain “inside”, meaning they should never be written. “We at TLC are open-minded about where good, moving or otherwise powerful literature in any genre might spring from, and not frightened by the idea of not very good literature being made available,” she said.
Although she recognised that some works were objectively better than others in terms of their literary reckoning, she did not wish to censor or shame writers for producing works not conventionally brilliant. She believed in the value of sensitive engagement to help them better understand where they stood.
A young Rebecca at her flat where TLC started
Ms Swift recognised that talented authors from disadvantaged backgrounds or repressive countries often could not get their voices heard, no matter their ability. A bursary scheme she set up in 2001 with funding from Arts Council England sees 80 to 100 low-income authors have their manuscripts assessed for free each year.
One published writer, Jenny Downham, whose work was edited by TLC through the bursary scheme called Free Reads, said: “I had very little faith in myself. Not only did Becky and her team at TLC nurture some, but they vigorously supported me in trying to find an agent and get published.
“It was because of their encouragement that I went on to write a second novel published in 2007 and sold in 32 languages across the world.”
The consultancy contributed to the discovery of writers such as Prue Leith – the new judge replacing Mary Berry on the Great British Bake Off – Neamat Imam and Jennifer Makumbi, whose works adorn bookshelves around the world. “I don’t think I would have got my first book published without TLC. Becky was brilliant at her job, always on the author’s side but tough as hell about bad writing,” Ms Leith said.
TLC will continue under new director Aki Schilz, a respected poet and editor.
Ms Swift, who studied at Camden School for Girls and then Oxford University, was from an artistic family. Her father, the actor Clive Swift, played Hyacinth Bucket’s long-suffering husband Richard in Keeping Up Appearances. Her mother, Margaret Drabble, is an award-winning novelist best known for The Millstone and Jerusalem the Golden.
Ms Swift herself was an essayist and poet. Her biography of the American poet Emily Dickinson was published in 2011. She championed the idea of writing as a therapeutic device and was a prolific diarist.
In 2005, she became a trustee of the Maya Centre, a free counselling service for vulnerable women in Archway, following her own struggles with clinical depression.
She died on April 18 after a battle with cancer. She leaves a long-term partner, Helen Cosis Brown.