Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thinking in Boxes

In March I read at the Huddersfield Literature Festival with two other Salt authors, story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow, at an event titled 'Salt of the Earth'. It's a strange thing, the way you get billed like this, almost as a representative of your publisher, rather than simply of your own writing. Although on this occasion that's how we offered ourselves, as a cohort of Salt authors, it is quite often the festival or independent events organizers who do this - decide to bill an event as a 'Salt' event: this has happened with an imminent Manchester Literature Festival event and another at Manchester Central Library in December (in both of which I'm taking part). My publisher has certainly made a splash as a small independent publisher of poetry and (so far) short fiction, and appears to have caught everyone's attention and imagination and the good thing about this is that it's a great publicity/marketing hook for events organizers and we, its authors, alike.

But at that Huddersfield reading, a question was asked by festival director Michael Stewart - who, indeed, I believe had given the event its name, 'Salt of the Earth' - a question that raised issues we three authors were unable to tackle fully at the time, and which I've only touched on since. What, he asked, did we think of the difference between Salt and Comma (Ra Page's Manchester independent, publishing chiefly short fiction), the difference as he saw it being that Comma was a 'high-concept' publisher and that Salt... Well, to be honest, I can't swear what he said Salt did, but at the time, perhaps influenced by the connotations of his title for our event and the fact that he referred as example to my having recently won a prize in the Raymond Carver competition, we interpreted him as saying that Salt published realist fiction, and swiftly stated the fact we know to be true: that Salt does not just publish realist writing, but is a broad church committed only to literary excellence (no one would call Carys's own contemporary fairy tales realist, or the science-inspired fantasies of Salt author Tania Hershman - and, as I put in, I wouldn't even call my Raymond Carver competition story realist but an attempt to critique the whole concept of realism).

The trouble was, we had failed to understand the term 'high-concept', or at any rate, speaking for myself, I had, taking it as a literary term meaning concerned with ideas and style rather than 'realist' notions of real life and character and story. It seems ridiculous now, because the term is now everywhere, but back then in March I hadn't understood that 'high-concept' is a marketing term denoting something almost opposite: a graphic notion which catches attention and is easily grasped, and is thus desirable for marketing any book. Ra Page's anthologies of short stories are indeed 'high-concept' in this sense, in that they are themed, usually around such a graphic notion, and I understand that some of his single-author collections, such as Tiny Deaths by Robert Shearman, are commissioned to be written around a unifying concept agreed beforehand. Salt, on the other hand, publish single author collections only and do not have that anthologist's need to shoe-horn diverse writers, and they don't commission collections to precalculated themes. However, contrary to what I think now was Michael's suggestion - which unfortunately I think our 'broad church' answer may have seemed to corroborate - Salt by no means eschew the high-concept marketing principle: director Chris-Hamilton Emery has made it clear that, while literary excellence is his touchstone, his books must be marketable with a clear, attractive concept (and fortunately for us Salt authors, when it comes to marketing matters like readings, we also have the Salt banner to wave).

But the big question arises: how do we market our books thus without reducing them? I have frequently railed against themed anthologies (although, succumbing to marketing pressures, I have published them) and the way in which they can force sometimes reductive readings on individual stories. By succumbing of necessity to the 'high-concept' sell, do we divert readers away from certain aspects of our work which are perhaps important to us? And does that matter? To be perfectly frank with you, as a writer the thing I'm really interested in, and would like my readers to share an interest in, is the ways we think, but tell that to the bookshop buyers and the Saturday browsers! Fortunately (or not) I come from a family in which you can soon get your leg pulled for sitting around and looking like you're thinking too much, so I learned early on the value of narrative and concrete detail for luring people into ideas, often by making them identify. But which do you stress when you're marketing? This is the stumbling block over which my first novel, The Birth Machine, (which wasn't originally called that), fell from being about logic and science and intuition and aimed more at men than women, into being sold and read as a feminist novel about childbirth aimed only at women. What I'm particularly interested in is the way we think in boxes, and a lot of my writing is about showing the falsity of those boxes. But you can't stop people reading in boxes, it seems, and one story of mine in which I tried to deconstruct concepts of class (and race) ended up in one critic's eyes as a depiction of a 'rolling working-class childhood' while in another's as being 'about a middle-class child'. I'm particularly keen to show the lack of dividing line between the 'ordinary' and the 'out-of-the-ordinary', but people seem reluctant to accept the fuzziness of this, and want to categorize. Several critics have stressed that my story collection is about 'ordinary lives' and, well, I'm just sitting here thinking: what, your dad beats you up and was a Jewish refugee; your next-door-neighbour is a famous opera singer; you're a mother with a newborn baby and you're losing it and you suddenly run away from a family outing across the sand dunes - these are ordinary? You take a stranger back to your hotel room for sex before you've hardly had time to speak to him? - well, I guess there's no accounting for what some people think of as ordinary, which rather proves my original literary point. And how much does 'high-concept' marketing exacerbate such simplifications? (How much is this reading of my stories influenced by my marketing blurb, which concentrated on the concrete and readily graspable?)

I've got a new novel out, so you can see why this matter is taxing me... (Luckily, it concerns a mystery, which is one 'high concept' that doesn't require things pinned down.)
Post a Comment