The Obsession That Wrecks Writers
My English teacher told me: ‘Specialise. Nobody likes a good all-rounder.’ Of course I was filled with youthful stupidity and ignored him, wasting years trying to please everyone instead of myself. During this time I had ample opportunity to study other writers and quickly identified an odd group. Instead of talking about the craft they obsessed over bestseller lists, ranking other authors, studying top tens and best-of-the-year articles.
They were fanatically concerned with sales, and eventually some got into trouble for ‘glove-puppeting’ – faking negative reviews under false names. Lately there have been cases like that of James Frey, whose supposedly true biography of addiction ‘A Million Little Pieces’ turned out to be not very true at all, resulting in some weaselly climbdowns by the author. Why on earth had he tried to sell it as a memoir? Are readers more likely to read a book if they think it’s based on a true story?
Ambition blindsides some authors, and I’ve been at literary awards ceremonies among some very sore losers. Most awards are subject to the vagaries of circumstance and are in hindsight nonsense – especially the frequently absurd Booker Prize, although I have respect for the Pulitzer because it guarantees a standard of excellence. But feeling cheated and harder done-by than the next author is far more common than I’d ever expected. Casting envious glances at other authors we complain about the marketing, the sales, the lack of publicity, the covers, the festivals and signings, but most of all we complain about the money.
To be fair, nobody becomes a writer to get rich and the few lucky ones who do are ostracised by the rest. ‘She’s very difficult,’ they’ll say behind the back of a perfectly charming author, while checking to see if there has been any mention of their own book as an also-ran.
This desire to know where you rank needs to be resisted, because it can destroy careers. There are writers of negligible talent who network themselves to death trying to improve their ranking. Not long ago I met a writer hawking his work around pubs and bought a copy because I felt sorry for him; unfortunately the book was rubbish. There are an enormous number of novels (and films and plays) which tell amazing stories and fail to gain traction with the public because of bad timing or a perception that the subject matter will not please. I suspect we give up more easily than we used to because of the over-abundance of leisure pursuits available.
I started writing the Bryant & May series to run alongside what I felt was my main writing career of standalone novels and short stories because it was fun to write. I knew that after a few volumes I’d get no more reviews – there was no UK press coverage for ‘The Lonely Hour’ – but I’m aware that press reviews for anything other than stocking-fillers, politics and history have all but vanished here. Instead we do blog tours, which I thoroughly enjoy. But pressure to succeed? Somehow I dodged that bullet.
In the more populated US the pressure is much higher, but so are the rewards – a wide range of intelligently curated websites, and newspapers that still value books.
But if UK authors really do feel that there’s someone they need to be bitterly jealous of, I’d suggest trolling the rich and youthful Ronan Farrow, not only the famed son of two celebrities but a Pulitzer Prize winner, a terrific writer and journalist and voted one of the ‘World’s Sexiest Men’. There’s always someone above you.
It’s interesting that Mr Farrow’s book about the Weinstein scandal, ‘Catch and Kill’, also reveals an ambitious streak in its second half, in the race to beat rival journalists to the story.