They Don’t Get Out Much
Some authors treat public events as pyramid-selling sessions
In yesterday’s Comments section, Ian Luck possibly overestimates the ‘incestuous circles’ in which writers move. In my experience very few of us even speak to each other. It’s true that there are a small handful of writers who make up for their woefully inadequate books by glad-handing ‘the right people’ and chasing awards, but all writers have different approaches to how they treat their peers.
The incestuous circle belongs mainly to the literary writers, because they’re often invited to review each others’ work, and either praise or vilify, the latter leading to what the press always call a ‘spat’. Popular writers are much more insular, partly because they’re geographically spread out. Still, their paths cross at launch parties and literary festivals, in Harrogate, Cheltenham and now in London.
This leads to surreal scenes; you usually end up in a local theatre, walking through under-stage corridors lined with photos of those who have performed there (there’s inevitably a photo of One Direction). Before I went on at Somerset’s literary festival I ended up in a green room with Michael Portillo, Polly Toynbee, Harry Hill and Joanne Harris. Finding common conversational subjects was tricky. I suppose we could have made it more awkward by inviting Nigel Farage and Emu.
Suzi Feay (left) has reviewed for everyone from Time Out to the Financial Times, and frequently conducts her own on-stage interviews with writing’s big guns. An accomplished author in her own right, Suzi’s repository of strange stories about authors’ social habits would make a great book.
Some authors (not too many here, but I’ve noticed quite a lot from the US) treat public events as pyramid-selling sessions, sitting behind stacks of their own books and weaving their titles and characters into every Q&A reply. This technique doesn’t really work in the UK – we’re not natural sellers, and tend to be more concerned with creativity than selling units, which we regard to be the job of the publisher. Do US publishers push their authors harder to sell?
Genre writers are super-friendly, probably because they don’t get out much. Some of them are deeply, deeply strange. Their on-the-spectrum sociability takes the form of food, alcohol and then more alcohol, for which the Spanish have a word – sobremesa, meaning the part after lunch when you sociably sit and drink with friends.
In an attempt to remedy this insularity, last year I attempted to set up a rolling writers’ group which could casually meet in pubs to discuss, well, anything. It proved almost impossible to get everyone into one place – and when I did succeed in getting a few writers together they talked about everything except writing.
I should have been prepared for that. Writing is such a personal, unsharable thing – we’re not scriptwriters, all mucking in together. It’s our very insularity that attenuates our style. So we nod to each other across rooms, wracking our brains to put a name to a face and not worrying too much if we can’t. The one time you’ll find us being truly sociable is with readers.