Want To Write? Try Joining The Club

Reading & Writing

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At one of the first publishing parties I ever attended, I found myself among a group of bright young things discussing new books. I felt a little out of my depth because the BYTs all worked for literary publications and were littering the floor with Latin phrases and the titles of philosophical novels I hadn’t read. I had no real reason to be lacking in confidence; I’d studied Latin and was a voracious reader, but I ran a film company and had no publishing connections, and they were an intimidating pack. I felt like an outsider guiltily listening in at the keyhole while a private conversation took place on the other side of an elaborately locked door.

Prompted to justify my presence in this gilded circle, I explained that my first novel was about to be published. The atmosphere changed, but not for the better. When I told them it was about disaffected youths living on London’s rooftops, the BYTs all but snorted their drinks onto the carpet. Fantasy, SF, horror and crime – elements of which were all present in ‘Roofworld’ – were considered ‘genre’ and, I discovered for the first time, beneath consideration. One of group said, damningly, ‘Oh, our cleaner reads Popular Fiction’.

I’m no book snob; at the age of 12 I’d rather optimistically given ‘War and Peace’ my best shot and had made it through to the end, but I also read Ian Fleming and Spiderman comics. Until that moment I’d had no idea that there were two distinct types of fiction, literary and genre. It didn’t matter that I had a creative, lucrative job and the BYTs worked for publications with miniscule circulations – they showed me that they occupied the social high ground. This being Britain, there was also a matter of class to be considered.

Of course there was no such stigma among the writers of genre fiction, and I was wholeheartedly welcomed into various groups, starting with the British Fantasy Society and eventually joining the Crime Writers Association, but it was shocking how often I met new writers who felt too shy or uncomfortable to even consider attending the open nights of any organisation.

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It still happens. A short while ago I went along to a pub called The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker, and sat in on a night for first-time writers. This was a level playing field; they were all debuting in a small-press collection and I was now a different kind of outsider. I bought their anthology and sat quietly reading the stories, which were of an extremely high quality. But I couldn’t help noticing that a couple of the featured authors hovered awkwardly outside the pub, unable to cross the threshold.

Being shut out of groups is a sensation familiar to everyone at some time or another, and thinking back to that first party it was hard not to notice that it was almost exclusively male. One could imagine a budding Gillian Flynn being made to feel like a pariah. Happily, crime fiction underwent a revolution. Primarily powered by a female readership, it soon rubbed out the dividing line between so-called ‘important’ novels and ‘popular fiction’. This reading circle was further widened by TV series like ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Luther’ and ‘The Bridge’, which showed how social issues could be tackled within the context of crime stories.

But our desire to exist within circles of peers never quite leaves us, but it can also be a lot of fun. Literary festivals from Huddersfield to Whitstable offer an ever-expanding range of events for every type of writer, reader and every genre.

In 2015 I won the CWA Dagger In The Library, and something miraculous happened. It did not admit me into a secretive closed shop of other winners; there was no longer any need for such a group to exist because we all knew each other – we’d met at many previous CWA events, where everyone was welcomed and treated with respect.

Reading Martin Edwards’ masterful ‘The Golden Age of Murder’, I was struck by the exclusivity with which the authors of the Detection Club once regarded themselves. They may have counted Marxist sympathisers, feminists and gay writers in their membership but they intermarried and had affairs with one another in what must have been a pretty claustrophobic, snobbish and incestuous circle, albeit a highly talented one.

Social media has helped to kick the locks off previously closed doors, but there’s still one golden key that opens all doors; the ability to express yourself well. Finding your own voice is easier now that there are so many groups, clubs and courses available – to begin, just search your area online.

MB The libraries in the pictures are Trinity College, Dublin and the Portuguese reading room in Rio.

8 comments on “Want To Write? Try Joining The Club”

  1. Vincent C says:

    This article is a delight. As is, I hasten to add, everything I read on this site. Thank you. Initially, and to indulge my gift for stating the obvious, shyness is a crippling disability that is unimaginable to those not afflicted with it. As for literary snobbery, it is amazing how many writers have been deemed beyond the pale by their contemporaries. Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham are just two who spring to mind. In our own time, Stephen King has been subjected to the most appalling treatment by his spurious betters. One cannot help but wonder to what extent there is an inverse relationship in the minds of the so called literary cognoscenti between commercial success and acceptability or, to use a term which in the context I find oxymoronic, quality. Here endeth the lesson!

  2. Tony Walker says:

    Loved this piece! I’ve been along to various writing groups, both here and in the USA, and found myself to be the one who was standing outside the ‘inner circle’, because I was a writer of genre fiction. I was told by one group that I wouldn’t really fit in because the members all wrote literary fiction, whatever the hell that is.

    Later, I remembered those writers who actually found a huge worldwide audience through writing genre fiction. Mickey Spillane, Stephen King, Dennis Wheatley, Tom Clancy, and even Hank Janson (remember him?). Just because they wrote stories people wanted to read, does that make their work less worthwhile?

  3. davem says:

    Great article Chris … unfortunately this type of snobbishness exists in many ‘industries’ in the UK; a matter of who you know not what you know.

    You have much to be proud of.

  4. Eugene Kelly says:

    Even though it happened twenty four years ago I can still remember the look of disdain on the face of the English literature graduate’s face when after being asked what I was currently reading I replied that I was reading all the ‘James Bond’ books in order.

  5. Vivienne says:

    I remember when I was about only 15, 16 or so discovering the TLS existed. What joy! i thought, erudite people who could could share my enthusiasms and point me in the right direction. Alas, everything, it seemed, was awful and beneath contempt, really. I rather went off critics and just kept reading.

  6. Ann Y says:

    Excellent article – touching on the universal need to belong. On the other side of the fence as an ex-bookseller I remember the publisher’s ”do’s” we used to get invited along to – usually went fine due to the copious amounts of free wine.

  7. Ness says:

    I heard Kate Atkinson at the Melbourne Writers Festival some years ago after she’d made the leap into crime writing and she spoke about the divide between literary and genre and how other writers had suggested her change of direction may be harmful to her career. Others said she wasn’t ‘genre’ but ‘literary crime’ with the implication she was still a real writer. Really? I love her books and I don’t waste my time adding subject headings (and I’m a librarian).

    Same way when I recommend your books and people ask me about genre, what are they about etc.? I reply they are well written surprises. Read, try, enjoy, recommend or hurl across the room if necessary (don’t try with War and Peace, it will damage the plaster work or the cat).

    I’ve realized that a lot of my favourite authors break the genre barrier and are hard to categorize – makes it hard to find their books in bookshops but otherwise I don’t think I’ve been harmed by this rampant outbreak of imagination.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I do categorize sort of: Canadian to see if I actually read local, historical to see where that is going, mystery – both historical and modern- to make sure I don’t spend all my reading time on mysteries, etc. There is a literature category for books that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. That usually includes most award winning winners and nominees. They are often angst driven, self examining to the point of spiraling down a navel, and disturbing. They are also often a struggle to read. There are exceptions, of course; one is by a Canadian (!) , Will Ferguson, and is titled “419” about Nigeria and our perceptions of that tortured country. The author writes “humour” and I wonder how long it took his agent to place this piece of serious and fascinating writing.
    It took me a long time to learn that “genre” was everything I enjoyed and it wasn’t “good literature”.
    Saw a bit of an old “Morse” the other night in which the detective claimed that the writer of a piece of evidence was illiterate because he used a ‘Z’ instead of an ‘S’ (or was it vice versa?) We judge people on so many superficial criteria. (I still use the classic ‘U’ in those our endings, though.)

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