Want To Write? Try Joining The Club
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 hadnâ€™t read. I had no real reason to be lacking in confidence; Iâ€™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 Londonâ€™s rooftops, the BYTs all but snorted their drinks onto the carpet. Fantasy, SF, horror and crime â€“ elements of which were all present in â€˜Roofworldâ€™ â€“ were considered â€˜genreâ€™ and, I discovered for the first time, beneath consideration. One of group said, damningly, â€˜Oh, our cleaner reads Popular Fictionâ€™.
Iâ€™m no book snob; at the age of 12 Iâ€™d rather optimistically given â€˜War and Peaceâ€™ my best shot and had made it through to the end, but I also read Ian Fleming and Spiderman comics. Until that moment Iâ€™d had no idea that there were two distinct types of fiction, literary and genre. It didnâ€™t matter that I had a creative, lucrative job and the BYTs worked for publications with miniscule circulations â€“ 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.
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 couldnâ€™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 â€˜importantâ€™ novels and â€˜popular fictionâ€™. This reading circle was further widened by TV series like â€˜Breaking Badâ€™, â€˜Lutherâ€™ and â€˜The Bridgeâ€™, 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 â€“ weâ€™d met at many previous CWA events, where everyone was welcomed and treated with respect.
Reading Martin Edwardsâ€™ masterful â€˜The Golden Age of Murderâ€™, 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 thereâ€™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.