The Novel, Not The Author

Reading & Writing

At last week’s talk on my new novel ‘Plastic’, Joanne Harris and I thrashed through some of the reasons why a book might take six years to find an audience, and how the market is changing.

We are all branded by the subjects about which we choose to write. After ‘A Casual Vacancy’ it looked as if JK Rowling would always be Harry Potter, no matter what else she wrote. But a writer doesn’t just stop because of success and her move into crime was a smart one, although it may ultimately damage other authors who have their publication dates shifted around to accommodate her press campaigns.

Publicity agents are appallingly cynical about promoting writers over their books. I recently received a book by a writer called Camilla Ceder. On its cover was a roundel that declared; ‘The New Jo Nesbo’, which is lazy and offensive to both of them, implying that Nesbo is over and Ceder – in just her second novel – must now fit the mould created by someone else.

‘Plastic’ was the inverse of a Gothic novel, with a lone heroine facing terror and redemption in an alien setting. That in itself might have proven saleable, but I hobbled my chances by using my own name on a first-person-female narrative and mixing lots of black comedy in with extreme darkness.

Publishers could not even choose two genres for ‘Plastic’ to fall between. I suddenly felt as if I had dropped into the conversation between Hamlet and the Player King, presenting pastoral-allegorical-satirical-romantic-horrific for the delectation of no-one. If the publishers couldn’t see what it was, other than the anti-WH Smith novel, they certainly couldn’t imagine who would buy it.

I reworked it according to the whims of various acquisitions boards. Many professional readers submitted their reports. Some raised concerns about the viability of combining disparate elements in one novel. Some female readers were offended that a man should write in the form of a female first person, as if I was somehow taking work from a woman who could equally handle the task. Finally, I threw out the demographic rulebook that had come to bind me so tightly and reverted to a new version of my original intention.

It’s that version which is now appearing on shelves. Rowling was right to submit her work under a pseudonym – something for which she has been criticised. It’s the work that’s important, not the writer, and celebrity obsession is forcing writers who were once allowed to be invisible out from behind the page.

Being a constant presence on social networks is not necessarily a good thing for a writer. I blog because I enjoy it, not because I have to, and I make a conscious effort to avoid the insult of selling to my readership. I’m equally at pains not to write about my life much here, otherwise right now I’d be telling you about where I am – on a yacht populated with characters from a whodunnit; a spin doctor, two opera-singing daughters, a famous cookery book writer and an antique dealer who has discovered a rare missing painting.

There’s now a demand for authors to make themselves accessible and available to the public. In the US edition of the preface of her latest novel Jennifer Egan has actually added her phone number, saying she’s available for public events. It’s what we’ll all be doing soon, and those who don’t may well find themselves out of the race.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be a race – shouldn’t you let readers find you?

5 comments on “The Novel, Not The Author”

  1. Giles says:

    Darnit Fowler. Now I want to read that whodunnit (I bet it was the unreliable narrator.)

  2. snowy says:

    With that cast, I do hope you are not playing silly games trying to discover whose crime matches that written on the card you were given on arrival.

    That doesn’t end well for anybody!

  3. Kieran says:

    Please tell me the spin doctor is played by Ian McShane and the antique dealer by Richard Benjamin.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    And I hope you’re not going to be visiting any old shoreside churches. If you do, stay away from the confessional. Hope you’re having a good time.

  5. Janet Wilson says:

    I found my first B&M in a ‘any 2 paperbacks for £5’ shop that I dodged into during a downpour! Not all readers are constant, or methodical…

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