Friday, August 28, 2009

The Face of the Author

An excellent article by the Guardian's Richard Lea, who reports that since the Guardian began a series of video author interviews on their website, some publishers have been pushing to them the 'personable' aspects of their literary authors.

The crucial point Lea makes is that literary fiction appeals to the intellect (among other things, presumably) (an interesting, and useful I think, definition of literary fiction), and implies that any reader with a modicum of intellect would be put off rather than attracted by such base and irrelevant marketing appeals. He acknowledges, though, that literary fiction is a 'hard sell' which explains why 'even literary fiction' comes to be sold in this way. Personally, I'd take this further, and strike the 'even literary fiction' and replace it with 'literary fiction, above all others'. I'll never forget when I was invited to Harrogate or York (I forget which) to a dinner of Women of the North (no they weren't all wearing viking helmets, they were wearing those spiky/curly things with flowers and nets etc - it was some kind of achievers thing), and was put on the writers' table. Every other woman on the table was a highly successful writer of romantic fiction, and every one was matronly, plump and over fifty, or at least looked it. That was the moment it occurred to me that popular fiction just doesn't need the kind of marketing in which the author must be some kind of soulful or smouldering beauty, and that the marketers realized that literary fiction did.

Perhaps we should just acknowledge that reading literary fiction, like thinking itself, is not exactly a mass pursuit, and stop trying to sell it as such. Yet independent publishers of literary fiction who do operate outside the mainstream are especially reliant, if not on authors' good looks, on authors' personalities: as Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery has made clear to his authors, it's those authors with a profile on the web (and, I'd add, lots of friends there) who are most likely to sell books. May as well forget about hiding your suspect personality behind your brilliant prose, and too bad, eh, if revealing it puts people off even looking at your books...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Way Up a Mountain

Sorry for the blackout on my blogs at the moment: I'm up the mountain again, this time to help out with decorating work: too busy to blog, and my head's gone dead anyway or rather has been taken over by thoughts about woodfiller and whitewash and paint and drying times and suitable surfaces and - oh you don't want to know. Suffice to say that I'm now on most friendly terms with the staff at Bangor B&Q (literary conversation: what's that?). And if I should ever get a literary inspiration, well, that'll usually be when the signal for the mobile internet goes blank instead: it's much worse when it's windy for some reason - which here, opposite the ridge by the sea, it nearly always is. It's as much as I can do to keep up with my emails (and then I have to use the very primitive server mail platform: can't send block emails, each email takes an age to load through, and the platform doesn't keep a copy of what I've sent). Twitter hardly works at all. (So much for getting all my mates to vote for my book on the new Salt Just One Book poll and keeping up my books's exposure - what this does expose, I guess, is something of a flaw in the blanket contemporary acceptance of a culture of internet-based author marketing). And some days I don't get out in time to get a newspaper, though yesterday evening on my way to a fabulous meal in Molly's restaurant in Caernarfon, I did manage to buy a Guardian, and read an article by Nick Laird bemoaning the need for authors to market their own work and describing all the feelings we all have to squash in order to do it (or I do anyway): 'For one thing, it seems the height of bad manners, like going on about your own children' - which is exactly what I said the other day on the Elizabeth Baines blog. Oh, and a profile of Fay Weldon, who always makes me laugh... No way I can give you all the links, sorry: it would take half an hour at least, and there's a door waiting to be painted.

As for reading, I got quite hooked on a book in ms by a friend, in the half-hour each day I read in bed in the morning - more hooked than by most published books by well-known writers, to be honest. And having left our next reading group book at home (Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which I bought years ago but for some reason never read) I sent off for a second-hand copy from Amazon (and that took half an hour!), but it never arrived, presumably due to the remoteness of this location...

Should be back in full swing again by the second week of September (and of course publicising my new book, Too Many Magpies). Meanwhile, I'll blog if I can...

Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Can We Read?

John Siddique points us to an excellent article by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, in which LAT books editor Ulin confesses to the difficulty many of us share in settling to read books in these days of instant online networking. Ulin pinpoints the question of focus:
...the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves... In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

Here we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
Rightly, I think, Ulin says this question of time is at the heart of the matter. Books may now seem too slow, too behind the times. Yet in such a fast-forward age, he points out, the thing which books provide, that slowing down for contemplation, becomes ever more necessary.

It's a problem which I think is behind the cultural resistance to the short story, which, being in my view closer to poetry than the novel, requires a particular kind of focused attention. (A discussion about this is currently taking place at The Rumpus.)

And whatever applies to reading applies to writing several times over, I'd say: writing books requires far more contemplation than reading them, and far more necessary withdrawal, yet, since nowadays writers are required to take part in the marketing of their own books, it becomes urgently necessary for us to immerse ourselves in online networking...