Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Big Slices of the Literary Tart

Neither Bournemouth Runner at the Art of Fiction nor Roger Morris are as pleased with the McCrum article as I was (see previous post), and both take him as attacking the first-time novelists who receive big advances.

I don't think that's what McCrum was doing. He wasn't as clear he should have been (he didn't exactly explain the processes at work), but I think he was attacking rather the way that big advances operate in the present literary climate, and the bad effect they can have on some novelists who receive them, a problem discussed in the latest issue of the lit mag Mslexia.

First let me say that I know from bitter experience how bad it can be to get a small advance. The publisher has invested so little in you that they have nothing to lose in not bothering to market and publicise your novel properly, so in the small advance there can be an inbuilt failure. This was the point pressed home by the late agent Giles Gordon, and why he was the pioneer of Big Advances. (If McCrum seemed to be denying the potential evils of the small advance, it was perhaps out of an elitist naivity: he was once fiction editor at Faber which at the time, unlike my own publisher, respected and nurtured the careers of their literary authors even if they didn't pay them big advances at the start. )

However, it no longer works that a big advance is proof of a publisher's commitment to an author, and it's the big advance that can now bring inbuilt failure, just as it has for Gautam Malkani, the author of Londonstani, whom McCrum cites. All advances have to be earned back via sales, and if they don't do so - since nowadays the only thing publishers are interested in is money - you are by definition a Failure. This is what I think McCrum is referring to when he says that publishing today can't brook failure - it was a comment on PUBLISHERS' PERCEPTION of books, which is always determined by the immediate return on any advance. It doesn't take much calculating to work out that the bigger the advance, the closer you're sailing to the wind in this respect: whatever great reviews you get, however many thousands you sell, if you don't sell a zillion, the publisher will look on you askance next novel round, cos last time they LOST MONEY ON YOU. (Don't forget it's the financiers who rule the publishing houses nowadays, not the editors.) And they have ways of knowing, too: nowadays they can press a button and up comes your incriminating point-of-sale record: Look, only fifty-thousand copies sold, when we paid the bastard half a million!!!! (Hand across the throat).

The worst aspect of this scenario is that in order to try to make sure they recoup a big advance publishers are tempted into over-hyping books and tempting fate. The reviewers had it in for Londonstani: instead of praising it as a 'promising debut' as McCrum thinks they should have done, their main interest was the fact that the hype and the ridiculous advance were misplaced, the bad reviews affected sales and as McCrum points out, Londonstani is now being airbrushed from the bookshops and literary records (except that we guys are banging on about it!)

In other words, an author's welfare and literary development are the last thing publishing houses are concerned with nowadays. Big advances are all about making money for the publishing houses, and authors' careers can be and are sacrificed on this altar. I think this is what McCrum is saying. He's also saying something even more important in the longer and less author-centric term: that publishers are not interested in literature, in the actual writing, and that we've consequently ended up in a culture of trashy books, but even here by implication he's championing overlooked writers of decent stuff.

For the reasons above, as I have pointed out before, publishers are always nowadays on the lookout for the Next New Thing, ie first-time authors: virginal first-timers don't have any incriminating sales record cos they don't have any at all, and still therefore have the theoretical potential to be bestsellers. It's why I'm always saying that every new literary sensation nowadays is, through no fault of his or her own, a has-been in the making.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


In an article in today's Observer Review, Has the Novel Lost Its Way? Robert McCrum charts the changes in publishing since the sixties when the world of literary fiction was low-key and unashamedly elitist and novelists were not celebrities or highly paid. He pinpoints the instigation of both the Booker prize and the Hay on Wye Festival as the moments which nudged the Cult of the Literary Celebrity into being. The thrust of his argument is that, while seeming to both democratise literary novels and rehabilitate novels and novelists, this cultural trend has in fact led, as I myself am always whining, to the trashing of any novelist who fails to retrieve ridiculously unrealistic advances, and also to 'Lit-Lite': a short route to a quick buck, a blast of instant celebrity and a text devoid of consequence or meaning.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Two Fingers

Here's an artists' project after my own heart: http://www.hewittandjordan.com/work/willnot.html

Hewitt and Jordan, two Sheffield-based artists, are interrogating the whole con of art as a function of urban regeneration, and their latest project is a plan to distribute free to the whole population of Manchester badges bearing the slogan I will not accept 'the way things are'. I'm getting mine as soon as I can!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Enough To Put You Off Your Spaghetti

Once upon a time I was running a literature project and the Arts Council sent me on a marketing course. (This was where this particular tranche of money was going: not to any poverty-stricken writers needing to buy time to write, but in fees to the guys running the course and in putting them and eight of us art-worker geezers up in a London hotel for a whole weekend.) At the very first workshop, the very nice guy running it stunned us all with a beautifully graphic illustration of the marketing philosophy we were supposed to apply to our projects and were going to spend the weekend learning how.

He got a spaghetti spoon out of his bag (one of those flattish things with holes or slits or something). He said, 'Put up your hands if you like spaghetti.' All eight of us put up our hands. Then he said, 'How many of you eat spaghetti at home?' All of us except a gnarled and hairy editor of a poetry mag and a jumpered runner of a community literature project put up our hands again. 'How many of you do the cooking?' Only three of us put up our hands. 'Right,' he said, 'you are the three to whom I am going to market my spaghetti spoon!'

This was called IDENTIFYING AND TARGETING YOUR MARKET. There's no point targeting the wrong market, the smart arts worker whose husband did the cooking, least of all the hairy editor who never ate spaghetti at home.

This is the marketing philosophy behind the fiction-publishing industry now: identify an acknowledged need and answer it, give the public what they recognise and think they want, tap into established habit.

No one seems to have noticed that NOVELS ARE NOT SPAGHETTI SPOONS! Novels are ideas, language, emotions, stories you don't know you want before you read them and they enter your life for ever; literature is about surprise and enlightenment as well as recognition, and sometimes about CHANGING PEOPLE'S MINDS!

And anyway, I went on doing the cooking but I never bothered with a spaghetti spoon.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Marketing and Madness

I aint been writing me blog, aint been writing anything, in fact can't be bovvered even to fink in decent English. Why? Cos I've just finished a massive project - creative juices all run out, brain shut down, aversion to writing desk and computer screen raging. Though this morning that's set me thinking: this drained-out fallow period is inevitable, even necessary - you need to sleep, dream, and there's the rub when you've got a whole marketing industry out there wanting a book a year to keep you 'hot' and to fill the supermarket-bookshop shelves like the next consignment of tubs of margarine. Well, we know what sleep deprivation can to do one's sanity... In other words, this whole cultural ethos of marketing and hype is antipathetic to the creative process, and what is that doing to our collective psyche? I've done my share of commissioned and commercial stuff, and to my shame know only too well the sick sense of selling out, suppressing my own insights and artistic aims for the sake of the 'market'. Ugh. Yuk. Aaargh...

But there's none of that with poetry. Last night I went to the Library Theatre and heard four fantastic poets on the last leg of the Great Women Poets tour: Sujata Bhatt, Vicky Feaver, Catherine Fisher and Jackie Kay. No artistic compromises there, just thoughtful, moving, funny and highly accomplished poems, yet the place was packed with an audience hungry for such stuff and hanging on their every word. What do those marketeers know?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Art & Poetry at Cornerhouse

The Bitch may be a stay-at-home but she has her moles. One reports back from last night's Cornerhouse launch of Linda Chase's new collection of poems from Carcanet, Extended Family, and brings back some poignant and funny poems inside a bright funky cover. Apparently the reading was great and there were very tasty snacks (The Bitch is drooling now) nibbled amongst the current exhibition of Mexican women artists.

Even The Bitch comes out now and then though, blinking into the light of day and those buzzy, huzzy Manc streets, and last weekend I slipped into this very exhibition. It was late, and the galleries were due to close by the time I settled to watch the harrowing film about girl prostitutes in Gallery Two, but already, when the nice curator came and told me nicely to get the heck out, sling my hook and do one, I was in floods of tears. I'll definitely be going back to watch it properly.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Reality Check

This might seem a bit off the wall (that's the trouble with us writers, we're always off inside our own heads), but as a writer and also as a normal (or slightly less off-her-head) punter something's bugging me.

Last night I belatedly saw Mike Leigh's film Vera Drake (on DVD), and a couple of weeks ago I watched an acting friend take a small role in ITV's Sunday night soap-slush The Royal. Now both of these period pieces set in the fifties shocked me for the following reason: from the design point of view (the costumes, settings and cars etc), they seemed to confuse the fifties and the thirties. Well now, I know that in any era there are still cars knocking around from previous eras and people, especially middle-aged people like Vera Drake, still wearing the clothes of their youth, the way many people's grannies tend to do, and sitting on furniture they bought twenty years ago, but in these two productions the air of the thirties definitely won out.

Up till now in the popular imagination the fifties has been a bright-coloured era, with sharp edges and a modern, rock-and-roll air which I've always thought must have given a true sense of the mood of the times, and very much opposed to the muted soft-focus sepia idea we have of the thirties. Now however, it seems, a new generation of designers has eroded this distinction, and in view of the power of image and film, I wonder if we are in danger of losing the the truth about the tone of those times?

But then, what do we know? I remember the seventies as bright and hard-edged too, and was pretty shaken up by the TV footage of the Silver Jubilee rolled out on the Queen's 80th birthday recently: how quaint everyone looked, and how muted, and I wasn't at all sure it was simply due to the deterioration of the film!

Scary. What does it mean about memory and historical truth?