The Question Every Writer Hates…

There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.

It is dispiriting.

It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.

But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:

‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings.  Thank you.’

Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries

The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:

  • why read new books?
  • the pleasures of pessimism
  • the books we don’t understand
  • how best to read auto fiction
  • in search of authenticity
  • raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
  • the books we talk about (and those we don’t)

Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.

This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:

“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”

To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.

But to which Tim Parks replies:

“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”

Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.

P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.



16 thoughts on “The Question Every Writer Hates…

  1. This made me laugh Victoria! As a reader, I’m not particularly enticed when book marketing says ‘its x meets y’ or similar. I just think its lazy and probably not true. They need to find another way and stop putting writers under stress filling out their questionnaires 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Madame B – very pleased to have made you laugh. Righteous payback for all those great 1980s videos and reviews. There’s another hideous question which is what writers do you like because the writers you like may in no way reflect how you personally write so it always seems like a sinister question, a sort of way to pigeon hole you. Although that might just be me being paranoid. I mean there might be one day when you’re liking Will Self and another when it’s Virginia so what’s that going to tell anyone about you. There was the first event I ever went to when we were asked what writers had influenced us and the writer before me went on at length about John Steinbeck – and when it came to me I blurted out Alistair Maclean and Tintin to the somewhat bemused audience in Heffers, Cambridge.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really loved Parks’ book! And, on the which-author-are-you-like question, I am conflicted. I absolutely agree that books are not like cans and beans – and yet without marketing and sales departments, they’d never be more than piles of paper. (Can you tell I used to work in marketing?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Simon he writes really well, doesn’t he?You’re right of course (about marketing and sales) and every writer wants to be read and therefore wants to be sold. I think nowadays it’s the independent presses that are willing to take more risks and are showing the rewards in Booker nominations etc. Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport published by Galley Press and not picked up by the big five is on the Booker long list this year. Of course the risk is that then the big publishers come in and pinch their authors because they have more money to offer them. Ben Myres most recent The Offing published by Bloomsbury/ The Gallows Pole by Bluemoose.


    • Hi Colin – it is dispiriting and also it’s almost impossible to judge from one’s own point of view. I’ve no idea who I write like really. I think with Titian’s Boatman I said it was like Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan but other than the fact it was set in Venice and had a courtesan our books weren’t very similar at all. Incidentally on this theme did you see that a book/novel about Le Corbusier called Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto has been published. There was a review of it in The Guardian. I don’t know if that’s useful info or just irritating and my apologies if it’s the latter!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oooh, I really don’t know what to say to this post! Other than, the Girl thing is clearly still bothering you. Perhaps your next book should be called ‘The Girl on the Spanish Civil War Train'(!)
    Personally I don’t want to read a book that is like anyone else’s, which is why I enjoy yours so much!!

    Liked by 1 person

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