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.
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.
Bookshops might actually disappear, imagine that. When you think about it there’s no real practical need for them to be there.
Even if we want physical books rather than electronic downloads, and I really do want a physical book I can hold in my hands, then these are readily available online through the mighty A (other online booksellers are available).
So why the need for a shop in the high street? It makes little economic sense to have it there – commercial property rental is expensive, staff wages could be saved. And aside from an extra place to buy coffee your average book shop is not offering the buyer anything that’s not just a click away.
Can’t speak for everyone, of course, but it’s my general impression many authors don’t have great faith or confidence in their own work. They are mostly a shy bunch, the ones I’ve met anyway, backwards in coming forwards.
There are exceptions of course. Norman Mailer was hardly shy for example. He seems to have been aggressive in the face of pretty much everything. He once got in a near fatal fight in the street with three sailors because they said his miniature poodle was ‘gay’. I suspect his confidence was boosted by the huge, unexpected and breath-taking success of his first book The Naked and the Dead. After its publication he was feted across the USA like a movie star. It was Martin Amis who pointed out that someone in the UK whose book had a similar level of success would buy a set of filing cabinets and consider giving up their job as a school teacher.
I think it helps a writer if you are something of an ‘outsider’ looking in – I’ve always felt a little that way myself and I believe it has helped me write.
I remember a literary critic offering the view that the best writers spend a short time immersed in ‘society’ and then a longer time outside of it, presumably in their room, writing – he offered Proust as an example of this effect.
Well I’m no Proust, but it’s a notion which rings true with me in some ways – not because I have at some period been part of a mad social whirl, then found myself excluded from it with only a pen and a Moleskine notebook for comfort, but because I am the sort of person who can feel a little detached even when surrounded by people.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an author and the image I had in my mind was of me walking into a book shop, picking up a copy of my own book from the shelves, looking at my name there on the cover and then taking it to the counter and buying it.
That, if you like, was the dream. So now, when I am in a position to live it, have I done so? The answer is nope.
My latest book is stocked in a fair few book stores, some so close to my home that only someone too lazy to live could avoid buying it for reasons of convenience. Yet I still haven’t done it – why not?