How To Be Unpopular
We’re in strange times for horror and fantasy.
China Mieville writes the knockout ‘Kraken’ and gets criticized for being too weird.
Stephen King writes four new novellas and gets praised for avoiding the supernatural.
TV dramas like ‘Whitechapel’ get greenlit so long as they have a factual element in them.
Writers produce fiction based on real-life crimes.
Whatever happened to making crazy stuff up?
The broad middle-swathe of the population is what publishers want to reach – but writers (myself included) have a tendency to dismiss populist fare as being beneath us. The problem is that we can’t reach this audience even when we try.
The general public does not like what we like.
‘Popular appeal’ is a phrase that holds a lot of meaning. Katie Price, Cheryl Cole and Jeremy Clarkson are popular names for a reason. They strike a basic chord in people’s lives. But they also have something else in common; they reach the public on a variety of formats. Publishers are desperate for authors who aren’t just authors. We need to be on TV, or be like our characters, or be in movies, so that we have ‘cross-format appeal’.
As a writer friend says, ‘I don’t perform, except at dinner.’ Me, I’m happy to get up in front of audiences, travel to far-flung venues to meet librarians and blog on a daily basis, work in other media. It’s easy to allow your writing job to become a 7-day week, and I often work for 16 hours a day. But the financial rewards are poor – the national average for the amount of money a UK writer makes in a year is £7,000.
So we do toilet books, TV spin-off books, articles, anything to continue. However, a day spent in a bookshop tallying what the public buys would shock you (I know, I’ve done it). People buy Jeremy Clarkson and silly gift books at a ratio of about 20-1 against fiction novels. Oh, and ‘Twilight’ – the Justin Bieber of horror – Why? Because it’s entry-level stuff, and we’ll always need those to ease in new readers, although the chances of a young audience graduating from Meyer to Machen are slender.
I accept the way things are, but some authors I meet are very upset about all of this. I won’t turn out the kind of supermarket thriller which has a poster reading ‘He has 12 hours to find his missing daughter’ or ‘A gruesome new serial killer is on the loose’ because it would cheat my regular readers. But the crucial thing is not to assume the moral high ground. I have respect for those who reach the mass appeal market, and often wish I could do it.
We all have guilty reading and viewing pleasures – mine include Viz, Glee, horror comics, cheesy Hammer films, chillout CDs and, shamefully, Norman Wisdom. But I think there’s a balance to be struck. I know people who are horrified by the fact that I like Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan while not liking Wagner. But I keep an open mind and try anything, then choose what I choose without apology – the key is not minding when others do the same.
Meanwhile I’ll play my original Jacques Loussier soundtrack for ‘The Mercenaries’ and the score to ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’. I’ll watch ‘Taxidermia’ and ‘The Bone Man’ and ‘Adele Blanc-Sec’ and ‘Silentium’ and ‘Calvaire’, which has that really messed-up creepy dancehall scene. And something from all of these influences will bleed into what I write.
The unpopular crave increased visibility. The popular crave critical approval. It’s rare to get both, and that’s the way it is.
For longer essays on the subject, check out my regular column ‘Interference’ in Black Static.