Some People Will Read Anything
When you write your first novel, you have to be very careful deciding who you’re aiming it at, because it will probably become your best-remembered work. I can say this from examining the careers of hundreds of authors for my weekly ‘Invisible Ink’ column in the Independent on Sunday.
If it’s a big hit and gets a film or TV version made, you’ll never have to worry again so long as you continue in the same vein. I have one writer friend whose first novel became a successful BBC TV series, and now he can’t sell anything else because he switched genres. If you write in different styles, you’re pretty much doomed.
Someone like Stephanie Meyer will mine out a particular seam (hormonally challenged teenaged girls), while JK Rowling has just announced three Harry Potter prequels, which will mean more films, musicals, fairground rides and vast publishing advances that drain cash away from new writers. Who can possibly compete with such over-exposure?
I get a vivid reminder of this every day, when I pass the trolley stuck in the wall of Platform 9.75 at King’s Cross Station and see the queues (always 30-40 strong) of people waiting for ages to have their photo taken with it. This stunt originally started when the publicists mocked one up and stuck it on a platform. The problem is that – in a wonderfully apt analogy – the queue runs past a little bookshop next door, blocking it off. Teenaged girls constantly go in asking for paraphernalia because one shop further along there’s an entire Harry Potter store, and the independent bookshop stands between the trolley and Potterland, so they automatically assume that it’s just there to exclusively sell Potter wands.
The broad church gets the congregation, and that’s entirely understandable. But it does mean that as celebrity writers get the majority of advances and attention, new writers get fewer opportunities. The big names with the easy-to-grasp titles and the memorable backstories stick in the minds of casual readers. For me, Susanna Clarke wrote the definitive magical novel with ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but she hasn’t become a household name.
I know people who’ll read anything at all that’s lying around. They read to be entertained, for something to do, like playing Sudoku. It’s not wrong, it’s just that I can’t do it and nor, I suspect, can you. I get excited about certain authors, I track down their backlists, I savour their prose.I could no sooner read a Jeffrey Archer novel than watch Made In Chelsea. It’s not snobbery but discernment. If we don’t refine our tastes, we don’t progress. But it shouldn’t be hard work.
The above placard is by one of Meyer’s Twi-Hards, an insight into how they spend their evenings.