‘How to write a novel in a month’, ‘Top ten tips for a healthy writing routine’, ‘The true inspiration for my novel: how I came within inches of being stamped on by an elephant’ – the chances are, if you are vaguely interested in books, a blog post or article of this sort has popped up on your twitter feed in the last week or so – maybe I’m even the author responsible for it! The media’s appetite for the reasons why writers write, how books come to be and why we all have a book hidden somewhere inside us is apparently insatiable.
An article extoling the virtues of a beautifully written book is a rare thing these days. Far more ubiquitous are pieces on how to write a book yourself. In fact, review space in national publications for fiction and poetry is shrinking by the year whilst tips on how to get published occupy endless column inches. As an author myself, it has left me asking the question: why it is that our culture is so obsessed with writing but seems to have lost interest in reading? Are we in danger of fostering a culture that is so caught up with expressing itself that it runs out of fuel for that expression? And, perhaps most worryingly, am I being self-indulgent in wanting to write?
Earlier this week, Anakana Schofield wrote an article in the Guardian that got me thinking. She talked about the challenge of publicising a novel in an environment that expects authors to write and talk about their personal lives and writing routines rather than their books and to do all this free of charge. Towards the end of her piece, she touched on the roots of this problem: a culture that values writing over the act of reading.
This idea fascinated me. As a first-time novelist, I have just had my first taste of what it’s like to promote a book: I have spoken at literary festival s and book groups, done interviews for national newspapers and magazines, written about a close encounter I had with a tape worm in India – anything that will help spread the name of the novel far and wide (It’s called The Sea Change in case you’re interested by the way…wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Having completed my fair share of PR hoop-jumping, I can concur with everything Schofield says about being expected to produce interviews, blogs and articles for free, often without having the chance to address what I really want to talk about – my novel. I can also back up what she says about the reason why a lot of people attend authors events, Q&A sessions or read blog posts or articles written by published authors – they are interested in writing a book and being published themselves. It would be very hypocritical of me to point the finger: until a year ago when Penguin offered me the book deal, I took an interest in these things for exactly the same reason. Like a lot of the people I have met over the last couple of months, I was an unpublished author with a novel I wanted people to read. When I was lucky enough to meet a published writer, the questions I asked them were often motivated less by a genuine interest in their work and more by a desire to publish my own book and experience what they have been fortunate enough to experience: readers responding to my stories.
Why is it that the media and publishers can get away with asking writers to undertake book promotion for free? It’s because supply far outstrips demand. If I don’t fill their column inches because I insist on being paid for my work, there are ten other authors with books to promote who will happily produce free content in the name of good publicity. In almost all areas of life, the clamour to be heard drowns out those who are prepared to hear: literature is no exception. And, ironically, because of this popular urge to speak out and the lack of a desire to listen, the value that society places on writing diminishes both on a monetary level and a cultural level. At times, it’s difficult to get people to pay any attention to my writing unless I am helping them work out how to make their own story heard.
Reflecting on my first foray into the world of publicity, I cannot help but stumble on some home truths about myself and the culture in which I operate as a writer. Could it be that we are so obsessed with self expression that we have forgotten how to listen and absorb what others are saying? We are all encouraged to blog and tweet and chart each moment of our existence through status updates. This feeds a hunger for writing and talking about ourselves and our views that far outstrips demand for the content we are producing (And, yes, I am aware of the irony of arguing this on a blog!).
And so it is that, in the midst of shamelessly promoting my novel, I have found myself asking lots of questions about my own reading habits. Why is it important to read? What does reading offer society? Culture’s obsession with writers and writing shows that literature still has a place in modern-day debate. But this appetite for writing is not sustainable without readers. And nor is it healthy.
When I read, I step outside of myself. I fuse my own perception of the world with that of the author’s and I enter into somebody else’s creation. In some ways, reading is a beautifully selfless activity: it is giving someone else’s vision of life a hearing. And yet it is so much more than that: it is also an alternative form of writing. One of the most precious things that I have witnessed during my book promotion is the incredibly diverse range of responses that readers can have to my novel: it is their own experiences that shape the story they are reading. And, often, I as the author have little or no control over what that response might be. My novel conjures up in one reader’s head a world that is entirely different to that of the next reader – that is the beauty of fiction. It is less about self-expression and more about conversation: a coming together of writer and reader to form a shared narrative.
The more I read, the more I learn that the most powerful novels are the ones that entrust their readers with responsibility: they show rather than tell; through allusion and suggestion, they invite the reader to play a role in forming the narrative for themselves. If I cease to read, I quickly lose grasp of the satisfaction that this process brings and my own writing becomes self indulgent and lazy.
Reading exposes me to new ways of seeing. In submitting myself to someone else’s story, I paradoxically gain the power to shape that story myself in my own mind. The thoughts and ideas and imaginative excursions that come out of this process prompt me to ask questions I may not have asked before. And that’s really the nub of it: novels are about asking questions, not about delivering answers. As I writer, I must have the humility to accept I don’t have all the answers – that my book is not just a vehicle for my own experiences but a vessel for somebody else’s. I must value my reader, especially because they may well be a dying breed. Writers like me are two a penny; attentive readers, however, are increasingly hard to come by!
My novel promotion has thrown me into the path of lots of off-beat events, one of which was a Laura Marling Secret Cinema concert where I was a writer in residence for the evening. Instead of payment for my creative services (!), I was given a free ticket to the concert. The most striking thing about the evening was the fact that guests had to hand over their mobile phones on the door. Instead of the sea of cameras and recording devices that usually floods the crowd at gigs and festivals, I found myself in a room full of listeners: hundreds of ears honed in on each lyric and note. There was no obsession with capturing the moment for ourselves. There was nobody tweeting about it or filming it in an attempt to place themselves at the centre of the experience. Instead, there was just the music and its audience. And perhaps this is where art’s true value lies: in a loss of self - a decision to swim into somebody else’s vision of the world and to embrace the chance to remould our own vision in the process.