Is it just me, or has everything suddenly gone rather quiet? Authors are used to hearing that the trade is dead, that bookshops are spookily deserted (it usually happens the week one has a new book being published) but the situation right now seems to be different.
It is not so much the readers who have slipped into a mood of torpid indifference but the book industry itself – the chains, the independent shops, the publishers and, most alarmingly of all, the authors. There is, without wishing to be unduly miserabilist, a sense that nothing is really moving forward or changing. The mood of the moment is a sullen, slightly bemused defeatism.
If anyone talks about future, it is never in the context of new young writers who are pushing their way through or of bright new publishing ideas. In fact, things are now so ineffably dreary that the only symbol of progress is a reading device, the e-book.
In the past, these moments of stasis tended to be localised. Different parts of the books business would droop, but rarely at the same time. Among authors, a slump in one generation or genre would be balanced out – often rather cruelly – by a sense of energy and movement elsewhere.
It is difficult to find much evidence of that now. Booksellers, having flirted over-excitedly with the world of marketing and price-cutting, now merely want to survive. The large, established publishers have adopted a safety-first editorial approach for so long that it has become a habit. If our great conglomerates were to inscribe a corporate motto over the entrance to their offices, it would surely “More of the same”.
That much is predictable: the most powerful influences on market economies have always been greed and fear, and at the moment fear has the upper hand. None of it would matter if, beneath this plateau of nothingness, a volcano of authorial energy and rebellion was rumbling. It is rarely publishers who instigate change. The best they can do is to identify when something new and interesting is emerging among writers, and then exploit it.
Yet the anxiety which has paralysed the business sector of books has infected writers and, disastrously, has coalesced with another trend. Once people wanted to write; now they want to be writers. Being an author has become a desirable career, like becoming a model or a TV presenter. It has a good image. The lifestyle, as presented in the Sunday newspaper profiles of bestselling authors, offers a fine mix of attractions – freedom, celebrity and the chance to express one’s ego in a psychologically healthy way.
Enter the creative writing course. Other parts of the books economy may be struggling but people are paying to learn how to become an author as never before.
For every serious course that takes writers of promise and provides them with confidence and a few tricks of the trade, there are hundreds which are peddling a fantasy. Recognising their market, creative writing entrepreneurs place the emphasis of their courses not on writing but on getting published – how to find an agent, how to put together a selling synopsis, how to find the genre which is right for you, dealing with an editor, self-marketing.
In other words, they have embraced the fearful, anxiety-ridden approach of the publishing industry. They are teaching would-be writers how to provide more of the same.
The result is to be found in the new authors section of the bookshops: a succession of passably accomplished, impeccably behaved, thoroughly respectable novels. The various rules of creative writing have been observed, any hint of risk or danger removed, leaving a flat sameness in many of the novels.
These books have something else in common – something which works to conceal the sterility of their contents. They will be launched on to the market by enthusiastic puffs from established authors. Some of the reference-givers turn out to have taught the new writer; others are represented by the same agent or published by the same house. Many have decided that to have one’s name appear on the back cover of a new work provides useful, free marketing. Favours are being done in the hope that this good turn will deserve another when the author’s next book is delivered.
It is a neat, profoundly cynical set-up. A couple of years ago, when judging a prize for young writers, I was surprised to read on the cover of a particularly lame new novel a sustained trill of admiration from a successful author. I happened to know the quote-giver and, when I next saw her, I asked in a genuine spirit of curiosity whether she had really loved the novel quite as much as she had said. She winced. Her German publisher had sent it to her. Germany was an important market for her right now. It seemed a simple thing to do. Where was the harm?
It is easy to be disapproving. We live in fearful times, and there are few creatures on earth more insecure than a professional writer who hears the thundering hooves of younger writers behind her or him.
What is altogether more depressing is that those young writers are scared, too. They worry that if they put too much humour in their novels, they will be taken less seriously; too much sex and they will be mocked as a potential winner of the Literary Review’sBad Sex Prize; too much attitude, and they will alienate the critics.
Publishers, also jittery, accept these safety-first efforts. Booksellers stock them. Members of the public may even buy them and find them acceptable in an unchallenging, slightly dull way.
The tired professionals within the books industry are not going to provide change or originality. It is up to authors to make trouble, to rebel against a timid culture. Frankly, we need a bit of a revolution.
The Author, Summer, 2010