A drive through the bright winter morning to sell my books at a book fair in the lovely Cotswold town of Evesham. Unfortunately when I got there I found no punters – plenty of other authors but nobody actually wanting to buy books.
This isn’t unusual for small press authors, events like this are often hit and miss. It’s in no way the organisers’ fault – they had made sure there was plenty of publicity both in the local media and by word of mouth, but sometimes, people just don’t come. Perhaps because of the location or the timing or whatever. So instead of talking to readers the authors talk to each other.
When did you last see someone reading a book? Not someone you know, just someone you happened to pass who was reading.
Of course, I know it’s not a spectator sport, there wasn’t some point in history where the public used to gather in concert halls or football stadiums and hold mass book reading ceremonies. It’s always been a private activity, which takes place behind closed doors in small groups or in isolation, almost as though there is something shameful about it.
But I do feel that these days I just don’t see people reading books as much as I used to.
Sigh – I came across a new low recently in the rapidly evolving book world – reviews for sale.
A random Twitter follower sent me a direct message asking if she might review one of my books on her blog. I didn’t know her, but then I have close to 27,000 Twitter followers so that’s not unusual. I checked out her book blog, it seemed superficially legit – there were reviews on there, it seemed to be regularly updated.
She didn’t use her name, just a pseudonym concerning her hair colour, but that didn’t seem too fishy – not everyone wants to be a public face. She described herself as a military wife, living somewhere in the USA, with a young family.
The British novelist Barry Hines told a story of sitting in a staff room after giving a reading at a school in Lincolnshire when a member of staff asked him the weirdest question he had ever been asked about his writing.
“You know that novel you wrote, A Kestrel for a Knave” asked the teacher sitting next to him. “Did you write it on purpose or by accident?”
Hines was momentarily at a loss. He could just about grasp the idea of someone writing a few lines of verse by accident, but a whole novel? Thousands of words, years of work? That would be some accident.
Recently I was interviewed by the amazing and successful author Jane Howard for her website, you can find that interview if you click here. And among other things she asked me which authors inspire me.
And what I said was this:
All authors inspire me – all of them, good ones, bad ones, self-published, small press, big publisher. I think writing books and stories is a tremendous thing for people to be doing, we hold a mirror up to society, we are its conscience and its soul. That’s no small thing to be involved in.
When people ask me about writing, which sometimes they do, one of the questions they are most likely to ask is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
It’s a tough one to answer, partly because I don’t think about the process very much and also because there isn’t just one place where ideas are floating around and we writers gather with our butterfly nets and haul them in. At least, I’m saying there is no such place, if there is let me know, it will make things a whole lot easier.
One of the hardest things to spot in your writing I think is when something hasn’t come out on the page the way you intended when you wrote it.
So you imply one thing, the reader infers another. It can happen in small subtle ways, or great big clunking ones – the character you intend as a noble hero can seem more of a villain for example. Why is it hard for the writer to spot? Because it’s still you doing the rewrites, and you still have your initial perception colouring your view.
Here’s an example, not from art but from life, of this effect in motion.
First thing I want to say is I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan, have been for years, nobody enjoys a bit of Blonde and Blonde or Blood on the Tracks more than me. But I don’t believe he should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature – it’s not the right award for him.
Fans supporting his win are talking about what a wonderful poet he is and what fantastic lyrics he writes, and I couldn’t agree more. He writes and performs wonderful work.
And he has received countless relevant awards for that, endless Grammys, an Oscar, you name it, probably had to build a new wing on his mansion to keep them in. Plus he’s had his mouth stuffed with gold, and he’s been feted for all kinds of stuff he’s not much good at, he’s been lauded as an actor when he can’t act, as a painter when he can’t paint worth a damn.
Why give him this as well?
When people ask me why I write fiction, as sometimes they do, I’m kind of at a loss. So full of words usually I find I have none.
So I have a stock response which is to say that I don’t know why I write except that I feel compelled to. I don’t necessarily enjoy writing so much as I find I need to do it, because it’s part of me.
So that deflects the question but doesn’t really answer it.
I was in a branch of Waterstones the other day, which is the big bookshop chain in the UK, and I noticed that, where the face-out copy of J.K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy should have been something else had appeared.
Another book was sitting there, taking the glory, and, to make things worse, it was a pretty shoddy looking book. It was skinny, barely more than a pamphlet, and it had a dull maroon cover with a white line drawing on the front. It reminded me of school text books from the 1970s. How could this cuckoo in the nest have got there? Well, I’m not Raymond Chandler, I wasn’t even in the detective fiction aisle, but I’m guessing we need look no further than the author of the ‘misplaced’ book.