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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.

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Comments (13)
    • Hi Harry, I did think of the Olympics in a slightly different context, the recent hubub over Simone Biles's decision to take herself out of competition as a way of taking care of herself. While there was a great deal of sympathy in public forums, there were also cries of 'quitter'. Critical attention is indeed fickle and erratic in many domains - 'critical' in the sense of 'negative' and critical in the broader sense of discernment in thinking. 

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      • Some criticism is just barmy. You read it and can't even be offended because it just so misses the point. I've had mostly positive reviews, but you can always tell when someone gets it and when they really really don't

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      • This is it! This is exactly what I needed to hear. OK, I didn't hear it, I read it. But that's not the point. I've never not worked in labour intensive jobs and I've only ever written stuff for fun. For 20+ years it was songs, then for the last few years it was my story.

        I AM going to keep the thought of world domination in my head, as unrealistic as I know it is, but I'm not going to dwell on it.

        I like my job. I'm good at it. But I love writing and I'm excellent at it. At least, that's what my mum told me. Mind you, she also said that I'm a handsome chap so she was obviously full of sh... beans.

        Anyway, good call Harry. That was probably my favourite Friday email, not just because of the message, but also because of the lovely story. Cheers. 

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        • Nowt wrong with dreaming of great things. Good luck!

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        • Interesting and I have to agree. I have read (or tried to read) books that have had amazing critical acclaim or been shortlisted for a prize and found them mediocre or bewildering. I have also read others (usually via my free book on Kindle every month) where I have tested my preconceived ideas and tried something new. I have been enticed, entranced, delighted, and been unable to break reading many of these books until the last page. The author is then added to my list of 'go to' writers and I buy more of their books. 

          I write for pleasure but also to be published - which I will do myself. I have a career that is now winding down slightly (one joy of being 60 - there had to be something) giving me more time to write for me and not a business.

          Great Friday email, Harry. Thank you.

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          • You're welcome. One of our alumni, Rachael Abbott, only started writing as a retirement project after selling her business. She then sold a few million copies so, um, the retirement project didn't really pan out as a way to actually retire ...

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          • A great story and some useful nods to why we do what we do. I've printed out this post/email to stick on the wall next to my desk, for those times when I need some affirmation that it's okay to do what I'm doing, because I enjoy doing it so much. 

            I've got A Sense of an Ending somewhere and I remember wondering how it won. I can't remember a thing about the story...

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            • I personally know a MAJOR award winning author in north America who lives on benefits.

              They naturally don't publicise that, however.

              Or at least I never saw it mentioned in the countless glowing reviews.

              I know another critically acclaimed author who pleaded recently online for help to pay his bills, saying he should have done writing as a side gig (he's a full time author).

              His second book was longlisted for the booker prize and his writin in general gets great reviews.

              And he has a major publisher with - I'm guessing - decent sales.

              A while ago he went public and said he got a 6k advance for each of his books.

              Moral of the story: don't live off writing until it pays - if it ever does.

              But there's a second path Harry doensn't mention.

              That you write crap self published books (I'm not saying they're all crap), focusing on a series in a niche genre that is booming, and market the hell out of them.

              I recently read a novel in a series by a famous authorpreneur (I'm not naming him). Some of you may have even taken one of his many courses (no, he's not with Jericho). Well, his book was poor. I read it and it was full of plot holes, dull characters, lazy writing, etc.

              But he has a career. A very nice one as he's sold millions of books, if you believe the propaganda.

              Yet his book was lousy.

              Personally, I'd prefer to go to my grave leaving behind a few quality books and make a living out of something else.

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