Restoring the equilibrium

When you write for a living, sometimes you forget that not all writing is the same. I’ve spent much of the last 24 months writing non-fiction for work, creating masses of new material for lots of different contexts.

It’s all had a lot in common with writing novels in many ways: strong voices, understanding your audiences, great structure, readability, distinctiveness, imagination. But even for someone who writes as quickly as I do, it has felt mechanistic, process-based, and – paradoxically – very uncreative despite the enormous amount of innovation involved.

But I have missed my own writing so much. So much it has almost broken my heart. And although I have retreated to the short form of songs to keep assonance, rhythm and, above all, storytelling in my words, there is nothing to replace the all-consuming encompassing soul-enriching obsession of writing a novel.


Writing fiction has always been a matter of equilibrium for me. I have written for so many years alongside other work that it has always balanced out my service to others in my job with my service to myself in writing. It has been my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and my way of working out what matters. Does that mean that when I was writing only for others that I lost those things? Well, the songs gave me back my sense of perspective and a way of working out what matters. And, to be truthful, when things have not gone well of late the first thing I have done is write a song.

But now it’s time to go back to novels. It is time to prioritise my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and go back to my way of working out what matters. As a writer, I have lost my equilibrium by writing for others and by prioritising their stories in my life.

Is writing for myself, my themes and my stories selfish? Perhaps.

But am I a better person when I write for myself? Oh yes.

Lucille, where have you got to after all this time? I hope you’re still around, because I’m coming home now.

Decline and Fall at the BBC: are books taking a beating?

John Dugdale’s blog for The Guardian this week about the decline of proper arts coverage and critical review on the BBC was thought-provoking. His observation that there is virtually no adequate quality television programming by the BBC on the arts, in particular books, was a chilling reminder of how the emphasis in so many parts of the media has moved away from in-depth discussion and towards the visual and the superficial. Although the BBC’s radio channels still give quite a lot of coverage to books, it seems that in a world of ever-increasing headlines, we lack feature articles. We value pictures over words. His concluding paragraph also cleverly pointed out a startling contradiction in the BBC’s same television programming: its reliance on literary adaptations for so much of its television drama.

The BBC’s mission to educate has long been sublimated to its desire to entertain, and in a generation when education itself has become unfashionable, Dugdale’s point that “the tone increasingly required of presenters, in arts output as in science or history films, is boyish or girlish enthusiasm” suggests that all informative programmes have been given the gloss of celebrity and shallowness. We will be better convinced by what we are told if the teller looks good and sounds cheerful. Certainly, Sky’s The Book Show, while masquerading as ‘serious’ programming on Sky’s Arts channel and with the clearly well-read Mariella Frostrup in the chair, still manages to land only a glancing blow on critical reception, largely because the people it interviews are authors talking about their own books. It is theequivalent of the glossy women’s magazine reading of literature: two column inches summing up a plot and its readability for airport layovers or the beach.

Does it matter that television seems to be opting out of its responsibility to the other arts? Several commenters on Dugdale’s blog noted that the BBC’s radio coverage of books is very good in both scope and depth, and it implies that there is something about the spoken word alone that gives the space for contemplation. People who listen to radio probably have more time to listen and think: it is the same principle that applies to a film and its music – we pick up the significance of a single camera shot immediately, but it takes several seconds to grasp the interpretation the music is providing. One cannot appreciate the depth of a radio discussion in a five second burst, flicking from channel to channel. And so perhaps there is just more room in radio to do justice to proper critical discussion of literature.

The difficulty is that the BBC has set the benchmark for so long for what is possible in television, that when it falls short – when any TV channel falls short – we feel short-changed. This rather casual approach to books is also demonstrated in the BBC News website coverage of literature. Since the new year, two very simplistic pieces of journalism purportedly about indie publishing have been put on their website, neither of which does any justice to the issue at all, and are hardly good advertisements for quality journalism either. The article ‘Do you have the write stuff to be a novelist?’ reported on a self-publishing author who, though surely interesting, is not remotely representative of his indie peers when he describes receiving only “six or eight rejections” from print publishers before turning to self-publishing.

Worse still, the article ‘The authors who are going it alone online – and winning’ was in fact comparing John Locke to Joanna Mallon and Amanda Hocking, the latter two saying just the opposite ofthe title: that indie-publishing was not the right route for them at all. Again, hardly the sort of quality, in-depth journalism that the BBC was once renowned for, and about as utterly  unrepresentative of indie publishing as it could be.

The BBC has had plenty of criticism lately, and this blog is not leaping on that bandwagon. But if the web articles are anything to go by, it shows that the BBC’s visually-led presence and pursuit of a strong internet ‘headlines’ brand is not compatible with the in-depth critical engagement required to reflect adequately the longer written form.

In other words, the BBC is not fit to feed the book world, merely to pluck the best of its fruits for reinventing in a form most suited to their aims. Not ours.

A paradox of independent publishing?

Since our recent post about the decision by Waterstone’s to bring Kindles into their stores, allonymbooks has shed the writing pyjamas and dressed like a professional to hit the branches and find out what staff in-store have been told about the plans for promoting the Kindle and its content. Responses varied widely. In one large central London store the day before the launch, a staff member told me that managers were just that afternoon meeting to discuss fundamentals about the launch and store logistics for the product. He looked surprised and a bit baffled when asked what Waterstones might do to adapt their book review cards for direct-published Kindle books, and clearly the idea hadn’t occurred to him at all before it was mentioned. He nodded a lot, thought about it, took some allonymbooks promotional material and agreed to ask his managers about it.

Ten days later allonymbooks went to a much smaller London branch and tried again. The woman behind the counter was honest and direct. She explained that the chain is still fathoming out how it is going to put the Kindle dimension into practice via its website, and she thought that was going to be a huge job to accomplish before they could even begin to consider new ways to look at readership, or reading content. She was also friendly and interested and, having an e-reader herself, was curious about the writer’s experiences of e-publishing. But the net result was the same. Waterstone’s are not ready to capitalise on the situation they have created.

allonymbooks has also been covertly swooping through the forum-verse over the last few weeks, investigating how other ‘literary’ writers are reaching their audiences. A discussion on Amazon’s own KDP forums initiated by literaryladynyc entitled ‘Can self-published literary fiction ever be successful?’ gave promise of a fruitful discussion. But when our audiobook voiceover artist Kate Daubney posted suggesting literary novelists might join together to advance the cause of quality fiction on Kindle collectively, her suggestion was met with silence. The discussion meandered on regardless with concerns about how to measure quality, definitions of what constituted literary, whether there was an elitist aspect to literary fiction or its readership, and so on. But the Continue reading

Pseudonym, allonym, anonym, username…

allonymbooks posted last week on The Guardian‘s new ‘Authors, tell us about your work!‘ page, and was interested to see that a debate had begun over whether it was appropriate for individuals who don’t normally post comments to The Guardian‘s pages to sign up simply to promote their novels. Contributor kushti had said, ‘Oh my, what a lot of writers have appeared on this site all of a sudden. I shall continue to stick with my policy of keeping to my secret identity and not promoting my books here, but thanks for the offer and good luck all.’ Contributor R042 observed, ‘This is where clicking on peoples’ [sic] usernames is useful; it tells apart those who registered to use this forum, and those who already contribute regularly to the site on subjects other than their own work.’

There are echoes here of the awkwardness I discussed in an earlier blog about self-promotion, but also of a somewhat more critical position I am becoming increasingly aware of as I trample through the ether: that the more blatant and frequent self-promotion that swoops on any and all opportunities on the internet and social media is considered crass by some authors who are choosing their opportunities more selectively. What can be interpreted from the comments above is that a pre-existing presence in the Guardian’s online community is a pre-requisite for being taken seriously when you promote your novel on that page. This implied equation of ongoing contribution being a function of value and credibility is common in other places – the UK Amazon Kindle Forum on Goodreads is a very cheerful place to talk about books, and is very welcoming of indie authors, but the moderators are clear that it is preferred that authors do not just “drop a promo and run”.

This ties in inevitably to the recent ‘sock-puppet‘ revelation concerning RJ Ellory’s penning of complimentary Amazon reviews about his own work and less generous ones about others and it proves, if nothing else, that the internet is a Continue reading