A Foot In The Door

The Arts

I still remember very clearly what it’s like to be an outsider, thinking that although I wrote I was not a real writer. I imagine all authors go through this stage except the most supremely self-assured.

At one of my very first publishing parties, I found myself among a group of Very Assured Ones who were discussing new books. I felt a little out of my depth because the VAOs all worked for literary publications and were littering the floor with Latin phrases and the titles of philosophical magical-realist novels I hadn’t read. There was an awful lot of ‘I told Marquez he was overrated in Buenos Aires’ chat, not really about books, more like one-upmanship.

I realised years later that I had no real reason to be lacking in confidence; I’d studied languages 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. I learned to listen and not speak unless I was on solid ground. It seemed to me that too many authors were stuck on transmit.

Back at my first party, 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 VAOs all but snorted their drinks onto the carpet.

I was a populist! Fantasy, SF, horror and crime – elements of which were all present in ‘Roofworld’ – were considered ‘genre’ and, I discovered for the first time, beneath their consideration. One of group said, damningly, ‘Oh, our cleaner reads Popular Fiction. That’s Agatha Christie, isn’t it?’

I’m no book snob; at the age of 12 I was bashing through Dickens and hoovering up everything from Trollope to Orwell, but I also read Ian Fleming and Spiderman comics. Until that moment I’d had no idea that there were distinct types of fiction, literary, popular and genre. It didn’t matter that I had a creative, lucrative job and the VAOs worked for obscure publications with miniscule circulations – they showed me that they occupied the social high ground by not needing to earn a livable wage. This being Britain, there was the 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 consider attending the open nights of any organisation. I’ve heard of writers failing to attend their own book launches.

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. Powered by a predominantly female readership (male readers having succumbed to the lure of iPads) it soon rubbed out most of the dividing line between ‘literary’ novels and ‘popular fiction’. This reading circle was further widened by TV series like ‘Chernobyl’, ‘Sharp Objects’ and ‘The Bridge’, which showed how social issues could be tackled within the context of thrilling stories.

Our desire to be accepted within a circle of peers never quite leaves us. Four years ago 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 I realised 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, leading to arguments within these very pages about the inclusion of self-published works, but there’s still one golden key that opens all doors; the ability to write in a pleasurable and appealing manner. I’ve long had suspicions that this part of the writing process comes from deep within one’s character and cannot be altered.

Finding your own voice is easier now that fewer are willing to disparage it. This is why there can be no schadenfreude for honoured writers. We should feel the thrill of discovery every time a fresh talent is fêted, knowing that it can only make the circle more inclusive.

The Pulitzer Prize honours fine writing of almost any kind. Sometimes I dip into the backlist of winners and read at random, trying to catch the judges out. I do the same in bookshops. Half a page is enough to let me know whether a book is for me.

8 comments on “A Foot In The Door”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Heaven knows Chris, I’m not a crawler, but you really are one of life’s achievers. At the young age you were at the time you ran a film company, something I would have loved to have done but didn’t have a clue how to go about it. That in my eyes makes you a VAO, even before you started writing.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Closed communities and incestuous circles apply outside writing too. In fact, I can’t offhand think of any area of life without them.

  3. Brooke says:

    But some have more permeable boundaries than others.

  4. Brooke says:

    Looked at Capital/Capitol Crime agenda. Would like to hear you in section on London as setting for crime novels. Would also like to know how panelists and speakers were selected–sales, obviously; some writers doing yeoman work are conspicuously absent.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – Hear, hear! I do often look at books shortlisted for prizes, etc., and a good many do seem to be written, not for the reader, or a general audience, but seemingly in the hope of being nominated for an award. The rather incestuous circles some writers move in – being friendly with certain critics, who will mention the book to other people ‘In the know’, or sharing an agent, who knows a bloke, who knows a bloke… That sort of thing, I’m sure goes on all the time. The elitist people that you mention, I’m sure that they have never, ever read a book simply for the joy of it, or a short story with an ending that jumps out of the dark, and slaps you round the face – I’ve just read C.S. Forester tale that dies exactly that in Martin Edwards’ latest British Library collection, ‘Deep Waters’. These are the sort of people who say the right names over their wineglass at each back-slapping industry shindig, but who really see reading as a chore, something to be endured, and who see hidden meaning in books, to seem superior, when in fact, the writer just wrote a clever, entertaining story. With no hidden meaning whatsoever. Very often, a Cigar is just a Cigar.
    You keep on writing your wonderful stories, Chris. We know how damn good you are, and we’ll keep reading them. Thank you.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ll second Ian. Keep on doing what you are doing. We all love and want to continue reading your stories. As for groups, who cares? It’s better to do what you enjoy and entertain increasing numbers of loyal readers.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    This tendency is most noticeable in the “literary” fiction realm. The attempt to elevate either the topic or the language in order to increase the seriousness with which the work is received is unfortunate. That is not to suggest that writing should be reduced to declarative simple sentences with words of one syllable. People with an artistic feel for language and a way of expressing themselves that portrays the emotion of the language as well as the denotation write sentences that illuminate the mind and the ideas expressed. It should not require three readings in which to dig out the author’s intent.
    Please prove me wrong.

  8. John Howard says:

    What Ian and Peter said.

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