Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Low Concept of High Concept

Well, doh! I've only just found out what 'high concept' means, though I guess if I'd known it was a marketing term I'd have twigged: it doesn't mean, as I thought, subtle and sophisticated, but quite the opposite: it means clear and simple in concept, as well as recognizable (which means I guess I misunderstood some of the discussion at the Huddersfield Literature Festival last week, where the term was used.) Here's a Waxman Literary Agency blogger writing about the fact that books need to be 'high concept' to sell:
For writers who are drawn to the obscure and the un-covered, who think “but no one has ever written about this! why write about things people already know?” I hear you–this feels remarkably like commercial pandering. But I would encourage you to think about three things: 1. it is all in the execution but no one will ever see your execution if your premise doesn’t catch their attention; 2. it’s hard to be attentive to things we don’t recognize on at least some level; and 3. who do you write for? If it’s for readers, think about it not as selling out, but about seducing people into your world, giving them a point of entry that lets them feel comfortable. High concept is all about the touch of recognition that makes readers ready to go along on your ride.
Well, this seems to me only sensible, as I've said on many an occasion, but there is one aspect of the Waxman blog post I find unsettling, which emerges in this sentence:
If the idea you're kicking around is really high concept, it should feel natural to come up with a one or two sentence affair that conveys the general premise of the work.
Run that by me again: If the idea you’re kicking around is really high concept. Ah, so it's not after all the pitch that has to be high-concept, as the blogger has up to this point been implying, but the original idea in the first place. And there are ideas that are intrinsically 'high-concept' and there are ideas that are not. It's not after all, a matter of 'seducing people' or 'giving them a point of entry' into something more subtle. It's not that, as I'm always saying, with clever marketing you can sell anything. Some ideas are just too subtle after all.

And we know where this can lead for fiction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Wrong Question

Here's a telling little snippet from an interview with Paulo Coelho by Hannah Pool in The Guardian. He is talking about his novel The Alchemist which has sold 35m copies:
It was published, it did not sell, and then the publisher said, "This book is never going to sell." ... However, I was so convinced that it was a great book that I started knocking on doors. [Now] The Alchemist is the most translated book by a living author.
What do we conclude from this? Perhaps that whether a book 'will sell' is the wrong question. It is the one which publishers are of course always asking, but what it most often seems to mean is Will this book sell itself? This seems to me the great inconsistency in an industry which is supposed to have bought in wholesale to the concept of marketing. As any real marketer knows, nothing sells itself: customers have to be wooed; conversely, with clever marketing you can sell anything, as the 'door-knocking' snakeoil salesmen knew only too well. Perhaps the question should be rather: Do we believe in this book enough to bother to move hell and high water to sell it? But then for that to happen, the power in publishing houses would have to move back to the editors and away from the accounting - oh, sorry, so-called marketing departments...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Final Leg of my Virtual Book Tour

The final leg of my virtual book tour is up today on the blog of Tania Hershman, author of the inventive science-inspired collection of stories, The White Road . Promotion over, folks - though it has actually been more than just that, an opportunity for some in-depth discussion about the nature of fiction, the writing process and the writing life.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Will Who?

I like what Robert McCrum says in relation to the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare:
The speculation about the life will rage until the crack of doom. The work remains.

The Logic of Literary Agents

After last week's 'Queryfail' on Twitter, in which literary agents spilled the beans about the daft and desperate query letters they receive, The Guardian reported yesterday uber-agent Jonny Geller as saying this:
'The fact is that publishers, and lots of agencies, have stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts, so how is a writer meant to get into publishing? I can understand [authors'] frustration [with Queryfail], but I think the more help given the better.'
Now let me get this straight. Prospective authors need help in writing the letters that 'lots of agencies' won't even consider nowadays?

That's a bit daft, isn't it? Or maybe it's the desperate logic of agents who feel they need 'help' in discouraging authors from sending unsolicited stuff in the first place...

(Can't find the Guardian link, I'm afraid.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fact v Fiction and the Myersons

What to say about the gaping hole of pain which is the current Myerson family debacle? My stomach lurched when I read Jake Myerson's account in the Daily Mail, I cried when I watched Julie squirming under Paxman's unforgiving treatment, struggling to put her point across while clearly racked by both guilt and a frightened sense of injustice. My stomach turned over again when I read all the finger-pointing by journalists and the public alike: bad mother; spoilt brat.

How many of us can put up our hands and say we weren't troubled and troublesome teenagers? Not me, certainly. How many of those of us who have been parents can say we haven't made mistakes? Not I, mate. It's no coincidence that many of my radio plays and much of my prose are about the repercussions that adult behaviour can have on children's lives.

'I had to write about it,' Myerson told Paxman, and Paxman reacted with his trademark mix of regular-bloke disbelief and supercilious contempt, and the rest of the world threw up their hands in horror with accusations of selfishness (and Myerson retreated into her now familiar justification that she had to tell the world about skunk).

But the point is this: we writers have a constitutional urge to write about what moves and troubles us and seems to us of dire importance (and I'm betting that this is something Jake Myerson understood when he apparently assented to the book's publication, which makes it all a much greyer area than people seem to assume): without that urge, books would be dead things that moved no one and affected nothing.

But this is the problem: the people we are in the throes of such crises are not the people we will always be. We are not the incontrovertible 'fact' of ourselves. It seems to me that Myerson's biggest mistake was to write the book as fact and not as fiction. You can see why she did, if she felt an urgency to expose the problem of skunk, and given the supremacy of 'fact' over fiction in our culture. But it's hard not to see the tragedy for this family as the ultimate fallout from this pernicious contemporary cultural phenomenon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Prose fiction v drama and adaptation: new leg of my virtual book tour

The penultimate leg of my virtual book tour, Around the Edges of the World, is now up. Crime-thriller writer Debi Alper asks me about the different processes in writing prose fiction and drama, and about the special problems of adapting one's own work from the first of these forms to the second.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

An Apology

My apologies: I took from Alexander Chancellor's article yesterday that Julie Myerson's new book The Lost Child was a novel. It's not in fact - it's even subtitled A True Story, I discover. This raises different and even more urgent issues, of course, about the morality of such memoirs, which, bogged down with script-reading, article-writing etc I'm afraid I don't have time to tackle just now. However there's a sensible-looking article about them in today's Guardian (which I also havent yet had time to read) by Ian Jack, once editor of the great journal of reportage, Granta.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Fact versus Fiction

As I have endlessly discussed on this blog, it's generally wise to resist public hunger to know the real-life sources of one's fiction, because for one thing, it can lead to mistaken biographical readings of the work as a whole, and for another, any sensible novelist is aware that once she has sent real life through the mangle of her own perceptions and the transformative process of fiction, it's become something else altogether and can no longer be claimed as factual truth. And such discussions do a great disservice to fiction, which is more than the sum of its parts - real life and imagination - and something more powerful altogether. Breaking it down into its 'components' is to reduce it and deny its transcendence.

It seems, however, that novelist Julie Myerson has not only admitted to the real-life trigger for her latest fiction, but is herself making the category error usually made by a naive public, and claiming that the troublesome drug-addicted boy in her latest novel is indeed her own son.

But one wonders what pressures she has been put under to do this (James Frey hovers virtually at my shoulder) with a public hungry for fact in fiction. She's getting plenty of publicity out of it, after all...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Literary Friends and the Spectre of Nepotism

Virtual book tours. Great publicity tools (I think, or at least hope, after all the work I'm putting into mine!), and more: opportunities for in-depth literary discussions; certainly I'm finding my own to be. But from under my Fictionbitch hat I don't find them unproblematic.

Today my tour goes to the blog of novelist and short-story writer Charles Lambert (where he asks me about my political consciousness - with a small p - as a writer, the differences between writing for a radio and a short story audience, and the reasons for the variety of the stories in my collection). Charles Lambert, I am pretty thrilled to say, is complimentary about my work, and the reasons I'm so thrilled are that I admire his writing greatly in turn and see in it some resonances with my own, and also - perhaps because of those resonances - he pays me the particular compliment of understanding my work on such a level that he is able to invite me to discuss the issues that are most important to me as a writer.

But here is the problem. What does this look like from the outside? Especially if you know the other, extraneous circumstances: we are published by the same publisher; we became friends via our blogs (and more latterly FaceBook); we have met twice, if briefly, at our publisher's book launches. And last year I hosted his book tour, expressing my admiration for his collection, A Scent of Cinnamon, and on another occasion wrote very positively about his novel, Little Monsters. Isn't this just a question of literary buddies bulling each other up? How can the outside observer take seriously any positive critical comments? This is of course the time-honoured complaint against reviewers, but the situation here is even more potentially dubious, since - although, as I say, I have discovered they can be far more - virtual book tours are fundamentally promotional tools.

Here at Bitch Towers I have historically distanced myself from promotion, and for this reason I tend to host book tours on my other, 'cuddlier' blog, as one publisher recently called it, and to promote there the books of my friends.

But the fact that is often overlooked is that our good opinions of the books of our literary friends most often precede our real-life friendships with them, and that the friendships only arise precisely because of literary resonance. One's writing, after all, is an expression of one's personality, and more often than not if I have been moved or impressed by a person's writing, then the odds are that when we meet in the flesh we will get on together and consequently become friends. Yet once we are friends, others may suspect that our claims for each others' work are not to be trusted.

This whole problem rears its ugly head when it comes to seeking cover quotes for a book, which I'm currently doing and which I wrote about last year, charting my somewhat ridiculous bid to avoid all accusations by searching for a quote from someone I didn't know.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Grim Rewards

In the second issue of the online Manchester Review from Manchester University, Colm Toibin reveals in an interview with M J Hyland that the best enjoyment he gets out of writing is the money. In a straw poll of authors conducted in response by The Guardian today (and which doesn't seem to be replicated in the online version of the Guardian article) most agree with his assessment that writing novels is actually pretty gruelling - Will Self is a notable exception - though Joyce Carol Oates points out pretty sharply that
...most literary writers don't write for money. A prose fiction writer's hourly wage, broken down into units, would be in the modest range of the US minimum wage of the 1950s - approximately $1 dollar per hour.
But then it's clear that even if it weren't for the money, Toibin would still be writing, like all of us unremunerated authors. He'd never quit, he says, writing is essentially a neurosis, an obsession.

Which is why, of course, the publishing industry has most of us over a ruddy barrel.

Rights versus Accessibilty

The rights versus accessibility debate, and fact that Amazon has caved in to the demands of the US Authors Guild to allow publishers to disable the text-to-speech function on the Kindle 2 here.