Performing Seals

The Author, Winter 2011

Are you doing Hay? Have you been invited to Cheltenham? Did you hear Richard Dawkins, Martina Cole, Bill Clinton? At some point in the last couple of decades, literature became part of the entertainment industry, sending authors round the country to discuss their writing habits, where they get their ideas from and what they think about their peers. Sometimes a well-known writer makes headlines, usually when he or she plunges into the age-old debate about literary versus popular fiction. Biography is another promising area, especially if someone has unearthed new information about a subject’s sexuality or eccentric domestic habits. Publishers love it and so do the media. Branding is as important for writers these days as it is for footballers and pop stars, as this advertising campaign for a best-selling crime writer – sorry, that should be blockbuster crime brand’ – demonstrates: ‘National outdoor poster advertising will reach 6m shoppers and commuters….Highly targeted online campaign, including Facebook advertising, blogger outreach and video trailer seeding….Joint competitions, cross promotion and in-DVD advertising’. I have to say that ‘blogger outreach’ sounds to me like something that might be carried out by Social Services, aimed at individuals so tied to their computers that they never leave the house. But some authors take to this game with gusto, embracing their ‘brand’ with the enthusiasm of an actor who’s finally been offered the chance to play Cleopatra or Hamlet.

Actually, singing at the Albert Hall may be a better analogy, given that this is about writing as showbiz. The days when an author could stay at home, writing books and behaving like just another human being, are long gone; in this universe, J D Salinger’s lifelong reluctance to be interviewed appears not merely eccentric but perverse. I know that authors have always had public lives, up to a point: Lord Byron’s popularity turned into notoriety because of the drama of his marriage and affairs, while Charles Dickens famously exhausted himself by reading emotional scenes from his novels in front of an audience. Many contemporary writers use their fame to support campaigns, whether it’s promoting literacy and free expression or endorsing political parties. For me, writing has always been inextricably bound up with politics and I’m happy to talk in public about human rights, secularism and the role of a free press. What I’m less happy about is the endless self-promotion and self-exposure required of writers, mirroring the relentless rise of narcissism right across popular culture.

Members of the public flock to see their favourite authors at festivals and in bookshops, queuing for signed copies and confiding that they’d love to be writers themselves. There’s no mystery about that: for many people who don’t know the literary world, writing isn’t about the hard slog of sitting alone day after day, struggling to find the right phrase or come up with a cogent piece of analysis. It’s about being up there on the stage, accepting compliments from an admiring audience, or sitting at the same table as Ruth Rendell and Stephen Fry. In bookshops, appearances by best-selling authors are advertised in much the same way as the opportunity to meet a contestant from Celebrity Big Brother (and sometimes, of course, the two things are synonymous).

There is a problem here. Hardly anyone is prepared to say it, but it should be obvious that public performance has very little to do with writing. It is possible to be a skilled public performer who talks fluently about the process of writing, but the two abilities are almost entirely unrelated. Someone who has written a memoir may have struggled for years with painful memories and internal conflicts, a process that’s bearable on the page but not in front of an audience; a novel that’s become a classic may have initially received lukewarm reviews, creating feelings of rejection and neglect its author does not wish to acknowledge in public. Even if neither of these cases applies, there is no reason why someone who has written a book should automatically want to discuss it in front of an audience and answer personal or inconsequential questions. For many authors, writing is a much more tentative, uncertain and fragile process than publishers’ publicity machines are prepared to admit.

The demand for writers-as-performers is ubiquitous. It’s also based on a series of myths, not least the notion that published authors have special knowledge about the process of writing. Would-be writers are sometimes obsessed with the mechanics yet it’s fairly obvious that what works for one person – writing 500 words each morning, or for three days at a stretch, or in a shed at the bottom of the garden – doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. I realised a long time ago that anyone who wants to write has to discover his or her individual writing pattern, and knowing how or where J K Rowling does it isn’t relevant to that.

Another myth is that meeting authors will provide insights into their books, as though there’s something missing from the work that can be discovered only by questioning them in person; it’s this theory that produces those stilted, not to say embarrassing, ‘interviews’ that sometimes appear tacked on at the end of novels. It’s an unlikely proposition, given that writing is so dependent on the unconscious mind, and writers are left treading precariously along the line between boasting and saying something interesting. I’ve often felt for authors who are clearly doing their best not to sound like deranged egomaniacs but I’ve also shared platforms – and here my point about narcissism is relevant again – with writers whose sole purpose is to talk about themselves as much as possible. Sometimes, it’s even occurred to me that there may be an inverse relationship between a talent for self-promotion and the ability to write.

The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for ‘personalities’, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent. This is particularly true of non-fiction, where the best-seller lists are dominated by famous comedians, TV tie-ins and the occasional footballer’s memoir, but it also has an impact on fiction. Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature or reluctant to jostle for attention. And that has an effect not just on the volumes that get onto bestseller lists but the question of who gets published in the first place. That matters more than ever at a time when so many mid-list – and as yet unpublished – authors are struggling.

In any society, the boundary between public and private life shifts and wavers. The phone hacking scandal that destroyed the News of the World last summer suggests that it’s been drawn in the wrong place for quite some time, turning private life into a commodity. Something similar has happened in publishing, where the assumption that writers are public figures – and indeed public property – is almost unquestioned. No doubt the prospect of becoming a media ‘personality’ appeals to some authors, but others are quite reasonably dismayed by it. A literary culture that favours performance over the unshowy skills of authorship is a bad thing for literature and for writers.


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