Buying your way to success

I have been following a discussion lately which started with the observation that E L James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, has got where she is today by spending £100,000 of her own money promoting her book. I have no idea whether this is true or not – perhaps she revealed it in an interview or maybe it’s an invention – but for the sake of this post I am going to assume it is true.

Some people thought, ‘Good luck to her’. If that was how she wanted to spend her money, fair enough. But others complained that it was hardly fair that one author could buy her way to success when another, just as good or better, with only five pounds in her pocket and a second-hand thesaurus out of a charity shop, could not afford do this too and so was doomed to languish unread on the physical and electronic shelves. It was not a level playing field.

Dealing with those who complained, two thoughts occur. Whoever said it was a level playing field in the first place? Taking authors as a whole, some are more intelligent than others, some have wider experience than others and, here’s one to think about, some have a better way with words than others.

But, the argument goes, money is different! Unlike having a winning way with words, having money is not a talent. It is not an authorial skill.

This is true, but surely if a book is unmarketable, no amount of money will make it sell. There has to be something to market which people will want to buy.

We don’t have to like this state of affairs, it may not be fair, but complaining about it won’t change anything. I think we should all just relax and have a bad time. That’s what we enjoy, isn’t it?

 

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There is no such thing as poetry

This bold statement was made by a friend of my wife when we visited him in his rural retreat. I shall call him Alfred. Having published quite a few poems in my time this gave me pause for thought. What had I done? What had I published? Plainly I didn’t know what I was doing.

The basis of Alfred’s view was that the recognition of poetry as a category was the result of snobbery. He saw no difference between poetry and prose, or if he did he refused to recognise it. There seemed to be a class basis underlying his attitude, yet I had never come across a socialist making this claim. Nor a communist. Even that nice man, Uncle Joe Stalin, had written poetry. So I assumed that this was a personal view shared by few. (You have probably noticed that ‘view’ rhymes with ‘few’, but we all make mistakes.)

In the class warfare between poetry and prose, Alfred was plainly siding with the oppressed masses. An interesting choice. Maybe I forgot to mention that his rural retreat contained an indoor swimming pool and a cinema.

When I got back home I thought some more about this, and wasted time composing a rebuttal, starting with the demonstrable fact that poetry existed long before prose and exploring other areas of note, including a brief tour of the four-stress alliterative line as used in Old and Middle English, before stealing purposefully towards the present day where – I admit – I hit the occasional problem, such as certain poems which seemed to me (and I had to agree with Alfred there) prose by any other name divided into lines on a wholly arbitrary basis.

Right, so some poems are prosaic, but that does not invalidate the majority which are not.

In the main I felt I had a good case and sent it to him. Not long afterwards I received a brief reply to the effect that he ‘took my point’ (I had made several) and concluding with the words ‘But I still think  . . .’

And this is what is called a meeting of minds.

Ringing Endorsements

There is an assumption that endorsements are a good thing. From the reader’s point of view it may help them to decide what to read next: from the writer’s point of view that they will help move copies of their books. Both of these assumptions may well be true. Going by the space devoted to endorsements in books these days, I have to assume that publishers are sitting on evidence that they are effective.

Critical acclaim can come from several different sources. One is newspapers and magazines, and  we will form a view over time of their reviewers, as Gore Vidal did concerning the New York Times.  Another source is online reviews from sites such as Amazon or Goodreads (now a branch of Amazon). And the third is critical acclaim from fellow authors.

Online reviews can be dreadful, but they can also be excellent, so those who read them must judge for themselves. But they can’t  in those cases where a review is written by the author under an assumed name – either to praise himself or do down a competitor. There have been several high-profile cases of this and no one can be sure how pervasive it might be.
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The area which interests me most is where authors are endorsed by other authors. This might happen for several reasons. The first is that one author genuinely admires the work of another. If they do, and they say so, that is surely a good thing. But what if two authors share the same publisher? It must have occurred to the marketing department that their authors might usefully endorse each other. And even where this is not the case, there is always the possibility that mutual back-scratching is taking place.

The first time I considered this subject was when I bought a copy of Underworld, by Don Delilo. I have since given this book away, but it contained several pages of praise from various sources. I made two attempts to read it, giving up both times.

I recently read The Blue Book, by A L Kennedy. On the back cover was a quotation from Richard Ford. Since I have given this book away too I am going by memory here, but I believe it said, ‘This woman is a profound writer.’ And those were the only words on the back cover.

My first assumption is that Richard Ford meant what he said. But was he right and, if so, why? It has been suggested to me that he must be right because 1) he was a novelist himself and 2) he was such an accomplished novelist that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. I have problems with this, none of them having to do with Richard Ford or the quality of his work.

Do we have to be a writer to evaluate the work of a writer? Plainly not. But perhaps being a writer gives us added insights we can bring to bear in our review? That’s obviously possible, but with at least one caveat: a writer will have certain working prejudices (a good thing) lighting his way along the path as he works. But these may, on occasion, skew his reaction to the work of others. Tolstoy was a writer but had a low opinion of Shakespeare. Do we accept his unusual point of view because he wrote Anna Karenina?

Is there any way through all this? Yes. The conclusion alone it is not enough. To enable us to test it, we need to know how it was arrived at. I have no doubt that Richard Ford, if asked, would tell us exactly why he thinks A L Kennedy is a profound writer. But this information was denied us. So the prospective purchaser of The Blue  Book was left with a back cover occupied by a mere assertion in solitary splendour.

Even if this assertion had been made by a literary Pope speaking ex cathedra (or possibly ex libris) we should not accept it. We must insist on our right to think for ourselves.