Some People Will Read Anything

Reading & Writing


When you write your first novel, you have to be very careful deciding who you’re aiming it at, because it will probably become your best-remembered work. I can say this from examining the careers of hundreds of authors for my weekly ‘Invisible Ink’ column in the Independent on Sunday.

If it’s a big hit and gets a film or TV version made, you’ll never have to worry again so long as you continue in the same vein. I have one writer friend whose first novel became a successful BBC TV series, and now he can’t sell anything else because he switched genres. If you write in different styles, you’re pretty much doomed.

Someone like Stephanie Meyer will mine out a particular seam (hormonally challenged teenaged girls), while JK Rowling has just announced three Harry Potter prequels, which will mean more films, musicals, fairground rides and vast publishing advances that drain cash away from new writers. Who can possibly compete with such over-exposure?

I get a vivid reminder of this every day, when I pass the trolley stuck in the wall of Platform 9.75 at King’s Cross Station and see the queues (always 30-40 strong) of people waiting for ages to have their photo taken with it. This stunt originally started when the publicists mocked one up and stuck it on a platform. The problem is that – in a wonderfully apt analogy – the queue runs past a little bookshop next door, blocking it off. Teenaged girls constantly go in asking for paraphernalia because one shop further along there’s an entire Harry Potter store, and the independent bookshop stands between the trolley and Potterland, so they automatically assume that it’s just there to exclusively sell Potter wands.

The broad church gets the congregation, and that’s entirely understandable. But it does mean that as celebrity writers get the majority of advances and attention, new writers get fewer opportunities. The big names with the easy-to-grasp titles and the memorable backstories stick in the minds of casual readers. For me, Susanna Clarke wrote the definitive magical novel with ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but she hasn’t become a household name.

I know people who’ll read anything at all that’s lying around. They read to be entertained, for something to do, like playing Sudoku. It’s not wrong, it’s just that I can’t do it and nor, I suspect, can you. I get excited about certain authors, I track down their backlists, I savour their prose.I could no sooner read a Jeffrey Archer novel than watch Made In Chelsea. It’s not snobbery but discernment. If we don’t refine our tastes, we don’t progress. But it shouldn’t be hard work.

The above placard is by one of Meyer’s Twi-Hards, an insight into how they spend their evenings.


7 comments on “Some People Will Read Anything”

  1. Vivienne says:

    I confess to being a reading addict – but in times of dire need would rather focus on the marmalade label than a Jeffery Archer. Also have this bad habit of wanting to read authors’ first works first, whether they are the memorable or best or not. This is a burden when there is a new, highly acclaimed work from someone with a long backlist. Is there going to be a next Invisible Ink collection – or should I keep tearing out bits of paper?

  2. Philip Jackson says:

    How nice that you’ve praised ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ – I started reading it this week! I’ve been so bowled over by Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’, that I was thinking I wouldn’t find anything to match the bar which has been set. It seems I may have much to look forward to after all….

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, unfortunately, did not do it for me. I finished it, loaned to my sister with not a negative word said and she called to say it was a great effort, but not enjoyable and she nearly did not finish it. That said I’m enjoying Hilary Mantel and Tom Crumb, which you wrote you greatly enjoyed.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Expect more interest in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell when the BBC adaptation currently being shot comes out.

  5. Ros Ashmore says:

    Read J Strange when first out and passed to friends and family, all have loved it.Heard it reviewed on the radio asI did with Christopher’s work which is enjoyable

  6. Jo W says:

    Read Jeffrey Archer? Better stories to be had on an HP sauce bottle or on the back of a stamp (as my old Dad would say). Btw I never said thanks for steering me towards the’diaries’ of E.M. Delafield,by way of your Invisible Ink. Very enjoyable.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I am currently reading an absolutely nothing mystery, probably a shame to have cut down the trees, but it takes my mind off a couple of things and I can exercise annoyance by telling the author in my mind what she should have done. I’m also reading some German history and guides to Iceland. I don’t mind Jeffrey Archer- well, I don’t think I’ve read one for a long time, but there are times when anything will do, including the French side of a can of beans. I guess I just have no discrimination.

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