Permission To Laugh

Reading & Writing


An alarming idea today: Are readers and audiences now obeying demographics, which were once designed to categorise their tastes? It strikes me because, when I analyse successful entertainment (as all writers are prone to do) I can see a huge new change in our habits.

Prior to the compartmentalisation of consumption, we enjoyed a book or a film simply because it was good. Now, with a few notable exceptions, we pick something from a column marked ‘Drama’, ‘Comedy’, ‘Romance’ of ‘Horror’ because that’s how it’s listed and presented to us. We pick what we already know we’ll like.

Partly this is the fault of the EPG, the electronic programme guide that divides and subdivides everything into a targeted interest. In bookshops, where there was once just ‘Fiction’, we now seek out the section that appeals. And films are even graded for ‘crude humour’ or ‘sexual content’ before we see them, so we can screen out the things we don’t like. We don’t want surprises.

I wonder about this because I saw sales figures for my books, and noted that ‘Plastic’ did not sell as well as ‘Hell Train’. ‘Plastic’ is a hybrid, part-black comedy, part-thriller. It was always going to be a tougher sell. ‘Hell Train’ has humour too, but is seen as a clear box-ticker in the ‘supernatural horror’ department. ‘Plastic’ is ambiguous. My Solaris books are more experimental, and attract a readership that knows my name. Transworld, my Bryant & May publisher, understands this and is very complimentary about its rival because they recognises that each company reaches different markets.The two demographic models reach different audiences. In the creative arts, you can no longer put all your eggs in one basket.

Where does that leave something like, say, ‘Sherlock Holmes’? It has drama and humour, but the difference is that authors have always played around with Holmes – the very idea grants permission for creator and reader to have fun. This is what I’ve always aimed for with the Bryant & May books – permission to enjoy yourself whether they’re dark or light in tone. It’s what makes film versions of Marvel Comics more rounded and pleasurable than poor old DC, who plod down to the box marked ‘Portentious Drama’ on every outing.

I know a great many authors who can write in multiple styles, but who find one particular style more popular with readers than their others. Consequently, they’re strait-jacketed by whatever sells the best. I know one author who hates what he writes, and only continues in a painfully dumbed-down style because it sells in supermarkets. It gets back to the oldest question of all – do you write what sells or do you write what you want?

I’m hoping you can do both. Last week, reading JG Farrell’s ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’, the Booker prizewinner for 1973, I found that to my surprise there were passages that had me laughing out loud – this in a story about a town under violent, terrifying attack. We shouldn’t need permission to laugh – writing should reflect life in its complexity, not compartmentalise it for safe consumption.


8 comments on “Permission To Laugh”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    This piece I’m printing out to save!
    A warning: I get a bit more personal here, so – if not interested – feel free to jump ahead to another reader’s post…
    I pretty much write what I want and then I tinker to widen the reading room up a bit. If I don’t like what I’m doing, it’s flat and I either drop it or it just sort of retreats to a manila folder and once there dries out.
    I write in two genres: for children (including young adults who don’t mind looking back) and adults who like overseas locations and don’t mind a bit of genre blending.
    This year has been spent so far working on my health, (I seem to have really, really whizzed off a number of Terry P’s little and less generous gods), preparing a long novel set in Leipzig for fall publication and working with my illustrator to complete the second pre-teens children’s book of a trio. The first already is published in limited edition by a company in German in Germany and must being resized for U.S. publication. The standard book sizes of the two countries are quite different.


  2. Wayne says:

    Thank you Admin, a very good post. I have often pondered the same question. Put everything into a box and if it doesn’t fit so what? Just give it a try, you might be glad you did.

    On a different subject, Admin could you tell me about a book called Pandemonium from 1994. Is this a re-title of another book for another country. Spanky springs to mind from viewing the cover. Can no longer find contact details to PM you. Many thanks.

  3. pheeny says:

    Speaking from a slightly different creative discipline (visual arts) I have always found it best to follow your desires. Whenever I have tried to create stuff with an eye to sales the results – although competent – have lacked a certain sparkle – whereas pieces I have made regardless of my audience have often sold despite lacking any obvious commercial appeal

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Slightly off topic, but only slightly: what would people recommend to a library a portion of whose elderly clientele really enjoys B&M on audio books but do not do e-books. Other people are fine with printed versions or whatever but the sight challenged have not adapted to the modern versions (they don’t have computers for one thing) and really enjoy the tapes. Eventually the tapes wear out and the library can’t replace them. Do they just have to shrug and enjoy a decreasing number of their (and our) favourite books since we know the problem will end with the end of the listeners – or does the library have to find a good voice to volunteer to record new copies?
    I just had this query presented to me by my hemi-demi-semi daughter who works in a library in Victoria (where all good Victorians go when they retire). The re-recording came to me as a solution just now after Marianne left but I imagine there are copyright issues here.

  5. snowy says:

    Books on tape are a fading format, libraries might be their last bastion in a world were fewer and fewer cassettes and players are manufactured each year.

    Depending on local laws, the copyright issue can probably be elided.

    [Central office holds the physical master copy of a work and issues one and one only lending copy for each master copy held dubbed onto library branded cassettes. These cassettes are destroyed and replaced when worn out, but are never sold off. It changes the model from that of a ‘purchase’ to that of a ‘licence’.]

    But there might be a clause in the supply agreement between the publisher and the library that specifically forbids this.

    E-media is something that libraries have not yet got right, it could extend their reach into the community they serve. But it would require a change so radical that most would see it as the complete destruction of everything they do. This change is coming anyway, it is inevitable, [but that would take us way off topic and be very long].

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I’m sure we will have that discussion eventually. I must ask Marianne what their arrangements are about copies. Thank you, Snowy. (I’m organizing the remains of our trip and have set aside one of the table pieces to go in with the photo of Sir John on the upper level of St. Pancras.)

  7. Matt says:

    @Wayne, that pandemonium book is a Spanish language book of probably Spanky as you have guessed.

  8. snowy says:

    [Off Topic]

    It seems that things are about to change over by you.

    May 29, 2014 – Victoria, BC: The Centre for Equitable Library Access officially launched its new national service which provides accessible library services and materials to Canadians with print disabilities. The announcement was made at the Canadian Library Association’s National Conference in Victoria, BC.

    [Print disabilities includes physical and visual problems]

    Have a look at the link above, and perhaps pass it on?

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