Why I Won’t Dumb Down
I have a confession to make.
While I was working on this year’s seemingly prolific output, I was also quietly writing another novel.
One thing I’ve noticed about the review copies that come through my door is how many claim to have sold 3 or 4 or even 10 million copies. It’s pretty depressing when you know you’ve never hit those giddy heights in the entire course of your career. So I set out to write the kind of thriller even the legendarily dim stockists at WH Smith would put on shelves between the free Galaxy bars and porn mags. I’ve never been stocked there in over forty books. It was a challenge, and we like challenges here at Fowler Towers.
I thought I could manage my own take on the mainstream blockbuster thriller. I crafted it carefully with a killer hook, short chapters, plenty of action, a bit of sex, clearly delineated characters. The writing was a boring chore that just had to be done. Then I came up with a quirky way of presenting all this information to the reader.
My agent liked it a lot and thought it would sell, and sent it out to professional readers. After three months we looked at all the notes we got back. Not one of them wanted to take the book as it stood. Now, which word in the above account, sank it?
I just couldn’t help myself. I had to stop myself from being bored so I added a little something, okay? The publishers’ readers thought the format was too tricksy, and that it needed to be simpler for their lists. Simpler! The only way I could have written more simply would have been to draw accompanying pictures to every sentence. There is a bestselling author I know who’s a terrible, dreadful writer, but who protects himself from bad reviews by constantly reminding everyone about the veracity of his research. That’s one way to do it. Another way is by being a great networker in the critics’ fraternity – I know someone who does that, too.
To my mind, a writer lives or dies by the word. If you fail, it should be because the story isn’t good enough, not because you didn’t attend the right dinners. Even Dan Brown, an absurd writer, knows that and writes according to solidly appealing principles. ‘Inferno’ will slip down a treat, especially now that we have Kindles and nobody need know we’re looking at it, like porn.
I know my story was good, but the publishers’ readers may be right and the format – a Q&A between two unreliable narrators and a cop – might be too distancing for readers who like things plainer. Fair enough. But it makes me realise that the book industry now correlates to London and its relationship to the rest of the country – we have a two-tier system. On one side, the wealthy panoply of fine literature and on the other, books for poors.
My novel has gone into a drawer. I’ll take it like a man and rewrite it at some point. It doesn’t matter. There’s a new adventure always waiting to be written.
NB James Hadley Chase was not dumb, I just liked the cover.