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.’
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.