The Obsession That Wrecks Writers

The Arts

My English teacher told me: ‘Specialise. Nobody likes a good all-rounder.’ Of course I was filled with youthful stupidity and ignored him, wasting years trying to please everyone instead of myself.  During this time I had ample opportunity to study other writers and quickly identified an odd group. Instead of talking about the craft they obsessed over bestseller lists, ranking other authors, studying top tens and best-of-the-year articles.

They were fanatically concerned with sales, and eventually some got into trouble for ‘glove-puppeting’ – faking negative reviews under false names. Lately there have been cases like that of James Frey, whose supposedly true biography of addiction ‘A Million Little Pieces’ turned out to be not very true at all, resulting in some weaselly climbdowns by the author. Why on earth had he tried to sell it as a memoir? Are readers more likely to read a book if they think it’s based on a true story?

Ambition blindsides some authors, and I’ve been at literary awards ceremonies among some very sore losers. Most awards are subject to the vagaries of circumstance and are in hindsight nonsense – especially the frequently absurd Booker Prize, although I have respect for the Pulitzer because it guarantees a standard of excellence. But feeling cheated and harder done-by than the next author is far more common than I’d ever expected. Casting envious glances at other authors we complain about the marketing, the sales, the lack of publicity, the covers, the festivals and signings, but most of all we complain about the money.

To be fair, nobody becomes a writer to get rich and the few lucky ones who do are ostracised by the rest. ‘She’s very difficult,’ they’ll say behind the back of a perfectly charming author, while checking to see if there has been any mention of their own book as an also-ran.

This desire to know where you rank needs to be resisted, because it can destroy careers. There are writers of negligible talent who network themselves to death trying to improve their ranking. Not long ago I met a writer hawking his work around pubs and bought a copy because I felt sorry for him; unfortunately the book was rubbish. There are an enormous number of novels (and films and plays) which tell amazing stories and fail to gain traction with the public because of bad timing or a perception that the subject matter will not please. I suspect we give up more easily than we used to because of the over-abundance of leisure pursuits available.

I started writing the Bryant & May series to run alongside what I felt was my main writing career of standalone novels and short stories because it was fun to write. I knew that after a few volumes I’d get no more reviews – there was no UK press coverage for ‘The Lonely Hour’ – but I’m aware that press reviews for anything other than stocking-fillers, politics and history have all but vanished here. Instead we do blog tours, which I thoroughly enjoy. But pressure to succeed? Somehow I dodged that bullet.

In the more populated US the pressure is much higher, but so are the rewards – a wide range of intelligently curated websites, and newspapers that still value books.

But if UK authors really do feel that there’s someone they need to be bitterly jealous of, I’d suggest trolling the rich and youthful Ronan Farrow, not only the famed son of two celebrities but a Pulitzer Prize winner, a terrific writer and journalist and voted one of the ‘World’s Sexiest Men’. There’s always someone above you.

It’s interesting that Mr Farrow’s book about the Weinstein scandal, ‘Catch and Kill’, also reveals an ambitious streak in its second half, in the race to beat rival journalists to the story.


9 comments on “The Obsession That Wrecks Writers”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    Finding reviews of good mystery/fantasy/science fiction books has always been difficult. Specialist bookshops or sellers are hard to find, and very rare. I depend on word of mouth from fellow fans, occasional ‘round-ups’ of genre books in newspapers (Guardian and Morning Star oblige from time to time), and slowly running through websites looking for ‘if you like this, you’ll like that’. Which may or may not be the case, of course. Years ago, when I used to go regularly to London for meetings, I always visited Forbidden Planet, and a crime book shop, located up a back alley, which has long since disappeared I think. In Leeds, I am limited to Waterstones, who do at least have dedicated sections for genre books, and (expletive deleted) Amazon, Wordery etc. None of this really helps me find new authors, although I can watch out for authors whose names I already know.
    And how W H Smith can still have the audacity to claim it is a bookshop, is beyond me!

  2. Bernard says:

    The New York Times Sunday book review section runs a fortnightly column by Marilyn Stasio reviewing a handful of crime fiction. That’s how I found B&M and many other good books. Her reviews are not particularly insightful but at least she brings new names to one’s attention.

  3. Brooke says:

    Interesting…the “obsession,” for money, success, etc. is pervasive. Young friends, and their appalled parents, eagerly talk about how obsession with success is fueling cheating, lying, numbers fudging, etc. in their universities/places of employment, .

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    All that effort for success, don’t they get tired? The same for books, I stick mainly to authors that I know, Fowler, Walker, Tallis, Leon in crime, with occasional excursions driven bookshop browsing and some revisits to old favourites.

  5. roxanne reynolds says:

    i regularly read Marilyn Stasio’s reviews in the NY Times. HOWEVER, i am thoroughly pissed off at her for revealing a major plot development in her review of the most recent Jo Nesbo book. i was dumbstruck.

  6. Ben M says:

    ‘Are readers more likely to read a book if they think it’s based on a true story?’, well I used to be, unless it was true I didn’t want to read it. Two books changed me, the first was ‘Twelve Grand’ by Jonathan Rendall, I was completely taken in by it to the point that I walked about in a daze after reading the last page. It did make me realise that belief of a story is all in the mind. The other book was Bryant and May and The Memory of Blood which I noticed in Waterstones because of the cover! I’m not sure why but this book opened my eyes to the world of fiction, possibly because it links a real space with a fictional event.

    I’m grateful to these two books and now the literary world is a much richer place for me to visit, just as long as I ignore the recommendations given by the media.

  7. Crystal says:

    “a Pulitzer Prize winner, a terrific writer and journalist and voted one of the ‘World’s Sexiest Men’. There’s always someone above you.”

    This is the same Ronan Farrow who helped the US government undermine Wikileaks?

    The same Ronan who lectures us self-righteously about sexual abuse, but never talks about the victims of his uncle, John Charles Farrow, currently serving a prison term for sexually abusing two children?

    Ronan’s just another centrist hypocrite. We can do without this woke version of J. Edgar Hoover.

  8. admin says:

    He does seem very pleased with himself, although to be fair he has discussed his uncle.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The ‘Based On A True Story’ tag on a book is usually a guarantee that I will never, in a million years, read that publication. The classic here has to be that huge pile of lies that was ‘The Amityville Horror.’ If the tag is on a book about something of historical interest, which has credible documentation, then fine. But most ‘Based On A True Story’ books can definitely be taken ‘Cum grano salis’.

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