Got no car, got no house ...
The Guardian newspaper ran an interview yesterday with a South African author, Karen Jennings.
In one way, the article offers a standard literary tale. Roughly this:
“Author writes book, this time about a lighthouse keeper and a refugee who washes up on his little island. Publisher buys book. Publisher publishes book. Book gets nominated for a major prize (in this case the Booker). Book increases its print run ten times over. Author suddenly starts to get a ton of positive attention. Big newspapers like the Guardian run flattering features. Life turns on its head.”
You’ve already read a version of that story a million times, except that on this occasion there’s more honesty on view, than often. The interview also tells us that Jennings finished the book in 2017. She didn’t (and doesn’t) have an agent. She found it very hard to get a publisher. When she did find one, (British micro press, Holland House), the team struggled to find anyone to endorse the book or give them a quote for the blurb. Prospects were so meagre that Holland House put out a print run of just five hundred copies (and it’s essentially impossible for anyone to make money at that level of sales.) When the book came out it was met, very largely, with silence.
Just pause there a second. That rather glum experience is as common as nuts. Loads of writers struggle to get an agent, struggle to get published, struggle to sell books, struggle to get that book noticed. That is pretty much the norm for our odd little industry.
And, OK, on this occasion we’re talking about a micro press that is well used to dealing with small numbers. But the same phenomenon is common enough with the Big 5 houses as well. Yes, advances are generally larger and yes, sales expectations are consequently higher. But if your book gets a mediocre cover, it’ll die all the same. You don’t hear a lot about the books that just curl up and die, but there are a lot of them out there. The reason you don’t hear about them is (duh!) they’ve curled up and died.
This experience often calls for sacrifices. Karen Jennings is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been really poor for a very long time. I don’t have much of a social life either. You know, I don’t have fancy clothes. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a career the way other people have.’
Now that outcome, it seems to me, is optional. I urge writers – and I mean YOU – to look after your income sensibly. That mostly means: get a job and write in your spare time. Or marry someone rich. Or win the lottery or strike oil in your back yard. Please don’t make the mistake of looking to writing for your livelihood.
But, OK, Jennings wanted to go all in on writing. She took that gamble and now her book is Booker-nominated and making waves.
Great. Good for her. It’s easy to read that story as one of belief. She believed in her writing. She gambled everything on it. The path was hard. Success didn’t come right away. But she hung in there – and one day the world opened up and started to give her all the things she’d always wanted.
But that’s the wrong way to read it. There are a thousand books out there as good as Jennings’s. Most of those will just sell a few copies then be forgotten. It’s perfectly likely that Jennings’s book will perform decently, but not win the Booker Prize, and then she, and her nascent career, may look little more robust than before.
Critical attention isn’t just fickle. It’s also wildly erratic.
Take a book that did win the Booker Prize: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. That’s a major author winning a massive book prize – so it must be a great book, no? I mean, there can’t be any doubt about that, can there?
Well, yes there can. Geoff Dyer, writing in the New York Times, commented: ‘This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written.’
Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.
So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, media likes to work with memes – idées reçus, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually, an anything), it struggles to overturn or challenge that idea.
So the Julian Barnes meme says, “Julian Barnes is a great novelist. Here he is writing about some Big and Important Topics. So this must be a Big and Important Book. Let’s say how great it is.” Easier to do that than to read the book and do some real critical thinking about it.
Let’s summarise some of these thoughts.
One: you can’t trust that excellence alone will bring you to national or international prominence. That may well not happen. Excellence is not enough.
Two: you can’t rely on critics to determine the value of your book. For one thing, the critics are mostly unlikely to read or comment on your book. For another, what they say is often nonsense, or a basket of conflicting opinions.
Three: once an opinion has formed, that opinion is likely to hold like iron, no matter what the actual reality of the situation.
Which is all good. It sets out the landscape for us as writers:
- You need to enjoy the process of writing, because you may not earn money or fame.
- You need to enjoy the process of publishing, for the same reason
- You need to trust your own inner assessment of the book, because you may not get any meaningful external commentary – and what you do get may be unhelpful anyway.
It’s not just writers who have to find their own rewards. Think of the Olympics. We focus on the medal-winners, of course, but most athletes coming to the Games end without a lump of metal round their necks. And very few athletes make it to the Games. In fact, there’s an entire pyramid of endeavour which exists because people love the endeavour.
So love the endeavour. Find your treasure in the here and now. In my experience, that’s the only enduring way to proceed, the only way to a settled satisfaction.
That’s it from me. The picture in the header this week? That’s the kids doing pre-Renaissance devotional art. Roll over Cimabue. There’s a new brush in town.