How To Be Unpopular

Media, Reading & Writing

We’re in strange times for horror and fantasy.
China Mieville writes the knockout ‘Kraken’ and gets criticized for being too weird.
Stephen King writes four new novellas and gets praised for avoiding the supernatural.
TV dramas like ‘Whitechapel’ get greenlit so long as they have a factual element in them.
Writers produce fiction based on real-life crimes.
Whatever happened to making crazy stuff up?

The broad middle-swathe of the population is what publishers want to reach – but writers (myself included) have a tendency to dismiss populist fare as being beneath us. The problem is that we can’t reach this audience even when we try.

The general public does not like what we like.
‘Popular appeal’ is a phrase that holds a lot of meaning. Katie Price, Cheryl Cole and Jeremy Clarkson are popular names for a reason. They strike a basic chord in people’s lives. But they also have something else in common; they reach the public on a variety of formats. Publishers are desperate for authors who aren’t just authors. We need to be on TV, or be like our characters, or be in movies, so that we have ‘cross-format appeal’.

As a writer friend says, ‘I don’t perform, except at dinner.’ Me, I’m happy to get up in front of audiences, travel to far-flung venues to meet librarians and blog on a daily basis, work in other media. It’s easy to allow your writing job to become a 7-day week, and I often work for 16 hours a day. But the financial rewards are poor – the national average for the amount of money a UK writer makes in a year is £7,000.

So we do toilet books, TV spin-off books, articles, anything to continue. However, a day spent in a bookshop tallying what the public buys would shock you (I know, I’ve done it). People buy Jeremy Clarkson and silly gift books at a ratio of about 20-1 against fiction novels. Oh, and ‘Twilight’ – the Justin Bieber of horror – Why? Because it’s entry-level stuff, and we’ll always need those to ease in new readers, although the chances of a young audience graduating from Meyer to Machen are slender.

I accept the way things are, but some authors I meet are very upset about all of this. I won’t turn out the kind of supermarket thriller which has a poster reading ‘He has 12 hours to find his missing daughter’ or ‘A gruesome new serial killer is on the loose’ because it would cheat my regular readers. But the crucial thing is not to assume the moral high ground. I have respect for those who reach the mass appeal market, and often wish I could do it.

We all have guilty reading and viewing pleasures – mine include Viz, Glee, horror comics, cheesy Hammer films, chillout CDs and, shamefully, Norman Wisdom. But I think there’s a balance to be struck. I know people who are horrified by the fact that I like Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan while not liking Wagner. But I keep an open mind and try anything, then choose what I choose without apology – the key is not minding when others do the same.

Meanwhile I’ll play my original Jacques Loussier soundtrack for ‘The Mercenaries’ and the score to ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’. I’ll watch ‘Taxidermia’ and ‘The Bone Man’ and ‘Adele Blanc-Sec’ and ‘Silentium’ and ‘Calvaire’, which has that really messed-up creepy dancehall scene. And something from all of these influences will bleed into what I write.

The unpopular crave increased visibility. The popular crave critical approval. It’s rare to get both, and that’s the way it is.

For longer essays on the subject, check out my regular column ‘Interference’ in Black Static.

9 comments on “How To Be Unpopular”

  1. Jon says:

    “I know people who are horrified by the fact that I like Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan while not liking Wagner. ”

    There’s an excuse that ignorant clots such as you are allowed to use and that’s to say that you find your appreciation of Wagner is clouded by your knowledge of his anti semitism and the love the Nazis had for his music and ethos.

    It is of course no excuse and I shall judge you harshly for your lack of taste.

  2. BangBang!! says:

    Or alternatively he just might not like the tunes. Whatever the reason, it’s called personal taste. It seems your lack of manners is only overshadowed by your ego.

  3. J. Folgard says:

    I just reread the first few lines of your post and it’s a nice summary of the situation. I hope my choice of fiction will not become too homogenized -hence dull. For as long as I remember, horror & fantasy have been dismissed by some as being a) stupid b) juvenile (dismissing all the good ‘all-ages’ stuff that’s produced with a younger audience in mind) c) purely exploitative, with no nuance at all. Many people need to be reassured that their escapism isn’t deemed silly (and doesn’t LOOK silly), it’s good for their self-image. On the other hand, I’ll forever treasure those puzzled, frowning looks I get sometimes for reading a comic-book during my train rides!

  4. Alan says:

    Recently I have been reading about the whole Flatley and Irish music thing.

    I don’t get it at all. Am I supposed to avoid something because it does not fit the circle into a square – neither of which I defined anyway.

    A reading of Yeats, or Blake by a log fire can be as satisfying as a fiddler by the same fire the next day.

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    Fuck it – write Celebrity Templars under a pseudonym. Make the money, use it to fund quirkiness. Think of it as taking money from idiots and putting it to better use behind the taps of the hostelries of King’s Cross. I’d have more sympathy for the ideal of the tortured artists had I not gone to an open mic poetry evening at the local art’s centre. A gig’s a gig, we write because we have to (remember?). Or because it’s what pays the rent and buys shoes for the children. And ultimately we’re not working in some awful office thinking we’re part of the professional middle class just because we have to wear a tie to work.

    Nothing guilty about the pleasure of Viz, nor for a love of the people’s-hero Pitkin!

    Not seen Glee, it’s sort of Bieberesque isn’t it?*

    *Ow, ow, ow…

  6. admin says:

    Good plan, Alan.

    Glee is sort of Bieber with polio – can be quite dark in places…

  7. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s basically Buffy The Vampire Slayer then? Well clearly we all ought to give it a watch this weekend, knowing to keep an eye out for the dark subtext. I warn you though if there’s any spontaneous dancing there will be words.

  8. noonski says:

    I don’t think it’s just publishing that suffers from this whole Popular Appeal thing. Granted, bookstores are overrun with carbon-copy replica books (really, how many vampire romances can there be?!) The same is true of film and TV (at least here in the U.S.) Once there’s a hit show, every network has to come up with it’s own variation. Every movie has it’s copy. Then, there are the inevitable sequels, then the remakes with a different actor (the press was all abuzz about the new Superman, and we’re redoing Spiderman, and how many Batman’s have there been?)

    It’s sad, very sad, that originality seems to be shunned, while an ability to take an idea and re-write it just enough to be the same story, without plagiarism, seems to be de rigueur. Maybe that’s why the internet has exploded, while book and music sales, and tv and movie ratings have dropped over the past decade. We are desperate for new and original ideas, and Publishers and Hollywood are just cranking out more of the same. You may not always find quality on the internet, but, at least there are lots and lots of original ideas in cyberspace.

    I’ve followed your blog for awhile now, and posted comments a time or two, but haven’t really said anything about Bryant & May. This seems to be the appropriate place to say thank you for the Bryant & May books. I stumbled upon them, in the way that avid readers seem to stumble upon treasured books: by accident. Literally. I knocked one of your books onto the floor as I was leaning against the bookcase looking at something entirely different. As I picked it up, I read the back cover, and it sounded like nothing I had read before. I realized it wasn’t the first book (and being anal, I like to read books in order) so I picked up “Full Dark House” and was hooked. I’m a mystery fan from way back, and, though I don’t read much horror or sci-fi any more, I read a lot of each in high school. Your books are a great combination of all of those, as well as a uniqueness that is all their own. So, thanks for all the hours of pleasant reading you’ve given me. Reading about your uncertainty about the continuation of the series makes me appreciate them more, and really makes this particular blog post
    stand out.

    Keep being original — keep writing, and keep believing in your audience. There are many of us out here who appreciate that you make the crazy stuff up!

  9. admin says:

    See, readers? This is now to make an author’s day start well!

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