Lots of debate this week as to whether authors should be paid for their appearances at literary festivals.
It’s come about because acclaimed author Philip Pullman took the principled decision to step down from his role as Patron of the Oxford Literature Festival over its failure to pay authors for appearances. Here’s the full story on that in the Bookseller
My view, for what it’s worth, is a big cheer for Pullman and a big pantomime boo for the Oxford festival. I can’t make the basic point better than Pullman did himself. The Oxford festival isn’t some new event, it’s well established. And it pays everybody else involved in the thing. It pays for the marquees it uses, the electricity, the catering, the drinks receptions. It pays salaries to administrators, and publicists and to the people who design and print the programmes.
I don’t read that many bad books, I take no pleasure in them. People sometimes talk about how they are going to gorge on book-junk as though a bad novel is a messy burger and there is a special joy to be gained from swallowing it. Not me.
I like many kinds of fiction and there are great writers in any genre, but I would rather seek out the glittering best of any given type rather than read that which is merely mediocre or indeed plain awful. So I do some research, take advice from people whose taste I trust. Hence I read very few bad books.
I’ve been reading The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the case notes of the recently departed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. It’s a fascinating book and deeply humane, dealing with the amazing curve balls our complex brains can throw at us when they go wrong.
It’s also very well written by someone who was clearly a great story-teller as well as a great scientist.
Literature festivals seem to be increasingly popular in the UK – big ones attracting thousands of punters, little ones popping up like mushrooms.
Over the last few years, as an author with a couple of books out, I’ve appeared at both kinds – and the first thing I want to say is that I think they are a force for good. Anything which encourages people to cherish books is on the side of the angels in my view. And the ones I have attended have allowed me to flog a few copies of my own books – what author wouldn’t like that?
But something has struck me about literature festivals in this country which is that, increasingly, they don’t bother too much with literature.
1. What are you writing now?
Personally I don’t like to talk much about what I am writing. I don’t think I am alone in that among authors. I need ideas to percolate inside my head, and then to work them through carefully on paper before I inflict them on the world.
Writing is first a very private business and then a very public one. While you are writing you don’t want anyone to know what you are up to and then, when you have finished it, you want everyone to read it!
One reason it’s not a great idea to discuss your ideas is that it allows in outside opinion too early. What if you have what you think is a viable idea, you invest time in preliminary work on it, then excitedly tell a pal. They say ‘oh, that sounds a bit dull’ and bang, there’s your confidence in the idea dented.
Opinions are like a-holes, everybody’s got one. It’s better to finish your book then hear what people think about it – good or bad.
Look what happens when you type the phrase ‘why are writers’ in Google!
Why are writers alcoholics? Why are writers depressed? Why are writers weird? Why are writers so sad?
Excuse me! A writer could become offended. Where does this peculiar and skewed view of the writing profession come from? I mean, I like a glass of wine as much of the next person, but I know when to stop. And I’m not that miserable, I’m mostly quite cheerful in fact.
It was Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers who popularised the idea of the 10,000 hour rule – the notion, supported by a weight of scientific research, that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert in anything.
Quite often people who aspire to be writers ask me for advice. They will say things like: “I have been thinking of writing a book …” It’s as though they are asking for my permission. And, though it’s clearly not mine to give, I say to them ‘yes, if that’s what you want to do please go ahead, start writing now, without delay.’
As a kid, with my nose in a book, I was often to be found in a library. This would be while the cool kids were outside playing the football with the jumpers for goalposts or hanging around the public toilets in the park snuffling glue from distressed plastic bags.
There are still libraries these days of course, but they are not what they were. Hindsight is a wonderful Technicolor thing and I don’t want to make it sound like the book depositories of my provincial British childhood were like the fabled library of Alexandria while the current ones are like some charity shop bargain bin, so let’s not overstate the case. But …
A little thing which changes when you become a published author is that sometimes people ask you to sign things. By things I mean books, and by sometimes I mean not very often.
But it’s still curious when it happens – the idea that your signature adds something to a copy of your book, that it’s a thing people want to see on there. It’s flattering of course, but also a little embarrassing maybe – something which makes you bashful.