Writing about Writing (Again): A Slap of Reality in a World of Fiction

On TV and in films, and even in many novels, writers are often – if not almost always – portrayed as high-profile media types, living the high-life, traversing here and there in sharp suits and fancy dresses, to interviews, readings, launches and high-profile media events. they’re inevitably best-sellers, and vaguely eccentric, and live in nice, even vaguely grand homes or apartments (if they’re American): they get stopped in the street (and, if you’re Castle, at crime scenes) by fans who simply love your books, live and breathe your characters and want to marry you., or at least have an affair.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the literary circles I move in are toward the lower end of the industry. By which, of course, I actually mean they exist outside of ‘the industry’. They work regular jobs, have families and chisel out their works in stolen hours late at night and early in the morning. They do it out of compulsion, a need to purge and splurge, rather than for the money. It almost goes without saying I count myself amongst these. Writing isn’t some hobby or light-relief pastime.

The writers I know and associate with are, believe it or not, more representative of writers than the popular portrayals of writers. With a few notable exceptions – Stephen King, JK Rowling, for example – writers tend to be fairly anonymous. Unlike actors, writers don’t get their faces splashed over huge billboards. Writers aren’t usually the most photogenic of people, which is often why they’re writers and not actors. Do you know what E.L. James looks like? Dan Brown? John Grisham? Jodi Picoult? Donna Tartt? Toby Litt? And these are ‘bestseller’ list authors, not the majority of people who constitute the world of publishing in all its guises.

It’s ironic that actors get paid megabucks for playing out the scenes laid out in the pages of books penned by anonymous writers, and earn significantly more for doing so, given that without the writers, the actors would have no scenes to perform. it’s all about having a face and an image that sells. ‘Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin didn’t get rich posting selfies and posing for Vogue.

Fiction is often escapist: it doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi to take the reader beyond the confines of their hum-drum daily existence. And so it may be that even writers who earn royalties of pence and cents may portray high-living celebrity writers in their works. I have no gripe about that, per se, other than the observation that it flies very much in the face of the first principle of writing, which is ‘write what you know.’ This doesn’t mean fantasy and science fiction are out by any stretch, so much as that it pays to at least research scenarios that exist beyond your knowledge, because a savvy reader can spot a bluffer. Research plus imagination is, of course, another matter entirely and can be the very essence of creative genius.

As such, I resist the urge to yell at the TV when ‘celebrity’ writers are portrayed. Of course, my initial thought is ‘when do these people get to do any writing, given the time they spend travelling around to premieres and being famous?’, but the answer is obvious – namely, the rest of the time. Because unlike the writers I know, they don’t work the 9-5, and their maids and the like take care of the kids while they swan round in the name of ‘research’.

Recent research suggests that the prospects of a writing career are pretty dismal if you’re looking to get rich, even if you do achieve a degree of fame: Prospects.ac.uk report that ‘The median earnings for professional writers (those who dedicate more than 50% of their time to writing) was only £11,000 in 2013, and only 11.5% of professional writers earned their incomes solely from writing.’ The Guardian reports that ‘The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.’

This is nowhere near a luxurious salary. It’s not even minimum wage. It’s certainly well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. It means that writers don’t live in palatial mansion-type homes, resplendent with antique furniture (unless they’ve inherited it) or plush penthouse apartments. They may have heaps of books on their shelves (the majority likely either purchased second hand or sent to them for review or in trade) but the chances are most writers don’t rise around brunchtime and slip on a silk bathrobe before a serving of eggs Benedict and then chip out a page or so while sipping sherry or 50-year old single malt in their resplendent superbly plush leather-upholstered chair at a Louis XIV desk in the prime spot in a mahogany-panelled library. No, writing is work: hard work, even for ‘successful’ authors. And given that in the region of 99% of all books published sell fewer than 100 copies, what hope is there fore the rest of us to break through to the major league?

The rest of us – the writers who can’t even qualify as ‘professional writers’ and who are obliged to work for a living and write on the side, in their spare time… well, what about us? We may be by and large fringe producers of culture, but collectively account for much of the vital undercurrent that breaks new ground and ultimately inspires the commercial mainstream. We’re the lifeblood. We stay up late, typing with our eye bags instead of our well-manicured fingers, using stolen moments to render those ideas that poke and prod and gnaw at us during the ours of the 9-5 into words that will ultimately purge us of the torment of drudgery.

Some, perhaps maybe many, harbour ambitions of the palatial mansion-type homes or plush penthouse apartment with a capacious library suite and luxurious office. Maybe they’ve bought the fictional representation of the author, like the office temp I worked with once – a guy in his early twenties who was convinced he could pen a novel that would become lauded as a literary masterpiece, after which he would never have to work again. I didn’t delight in shattering his illusions, and equally, I don’t delight in the author’s plight, because it’s my plight as much as the next minor-league author’s. This isn’t about highlighting that plight, either. It’s not a grumble and grouse about how artists don’t reap the rewards they deserve, but a meditation on the vast disparity between the fact and the fiction. And what beggars belief is that the fiction, as presented in the media, of the wealthy, famous and esteemed author, is propagated by authors at all levels. After all, ‘big’ films, TV dramas, series and the like are as likely to be penned by breakthrough authors, who are accustomed to the real world rather than the privileged world of the top flight. Where do they get these ideas from?

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see… Originality is dead. Legend and myth isn’t the life of the author. You’re not Stephen King, you’re not Castle. This is not ‘Murder, She Wrote’. This is life. Now write it.

 

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Cramped, cluttered and anything but the image of a palatial literary person’s writing space…. the ‘office’ of part-time literary nonentity Christopher Nosnibor, today.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk.

Foos for Thought: Groomed Bears and Porny Mummies… 50 Shades of Shit Lit Served Up on a Silvery Grey Platter with a Side-Order of Spam, Slaughtered Missing Girl and Spunk Salad.

While working on and developing This Book is Fucking Stupid, I became increasingly fascinated by the world of one-star book reviews and terrible book synopses. A number of things very soon became apparent. First, I discovered that good books – by which I mean both books of quality and books which have been lauded as books of quality by more respectable literary critics and publications – are as likely, if not more so, to receive negative reviews from readers than mediocre books beloved of mainstream audiences with less literary tastes. All of the authors I admire – from Burroughs, Ballard and Bukowski, via Stewart Home, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller to Chuck Palahniuk and Alain Robbe-Grillet, are in receipt of an almost equal number of one and five-star reviews.

Second, and equally depressingly, many of the worst, most poorly written book synopses, outlining the most absurd and implausible plots, didn’t belong to self-published pot-boilers, but to books riding high in the bestsellers lists. Of course, many self-published e-books proved to be supported by shamefully amateurish blurbs, but then any author who publishes a piece that’s under 6,000 words in length and calls it a novel clearly hasn’t a clue and we can expect little else.

Third, I began to appreciate just how vast the domains of erotica and fantasy writing really are, as well as how people really are suckers for series at the moment.

It was while searching the bestseller lists for abysmal blurbs for my occasional ‘bad blurb of the day’ series – and I have to say I was spoiled for choice, if not completely overwhelmed by the volume of contenders – that I stumbled upon the 50 Shades trilogy. The blurbs were terrible, but what intrigued me more was the polarised reader reviews. And there were many. This wasn’t a case of a few people with very different opinions posting their reading experiences, but a full-blown raging controversy that runs into postings into the thousands. What was curious was the fact that, whereas more often than not you’ll find those who abhor a book do so for precisely the reason those who adore it do so, with 50 Shades it was different. Those who loved it loved the plot, the characters… and those who hated it hated everything, but in particular the prose.

I wondered fleetingly how the 50 Shades phenomenon had bypassed me, and if I was really falling out of touch with the mainstream I so love to keep abreast of if only to dismantle and berate, before promptly forgetting about the whole deal and refocusing on something more important, like whether or not I needed to recharge my mobile phone.

A couple of days later, lo and behold a gaggle of women were discussing the book within earshot. Despite their varying demographics, they were all in one mind and totally aflutter over this exciting, steamy novel they’d been recommended. Stepping away from this predictable plot development, I was reminded of two important lessons I’d seemingly forgotten: 1) word of mouth is still the most effective promotional method going. 2) people are idiots who’ll subscribe to any crap, and herd mentality reigns.

The repetition of phrases was a recurrent theme in the postings of the book’s detractors. Now, I have no issue with repetition myself, and having absorbed a substantial amount of pulp fiction, as well as Stewart Home’s complete literary output and most of Robbe-Grillet’s major texts, I’ve come to appreciate the fun that can be had with recurring phrases. I’ve been known to apply a spot of cut-and-paste myself in the creation of various texts, with specific effects in mind. In fact, in writing This Book is Fucking Stupid, I took the practice a step further, in that the core narrative provided the basis of two novellas and a trio of short stories (although not all have been published at this moment in time). So, repetition’s fine by me, but there’s a world of difference between repetition for effect – orientation, disorientation, parody, pastiche, pulpiness or to create a strange sense of déjà vu, for instance – and limited vocabulary or a lack of lexical imagination. Judging by the comments regarding the standard of prose in 50 Shades, there seemed little doubt that it was very much a case of the latter, and that this was the most amateurishly-written dross to have ever been sent to press by a major publisher.

Perversely, my curiosity was aroused. I found myself wondering just how bad it really was, so took myself to WHS on my lunch break the next day, and having flicked through the NME, gravitated toward the paperback section.

On finding other customers browsing the bestselling fiction – a predictable array of all of the Game of Thrones titles (and having read an except of one of those over the shoulder of a fat guy with BO on the bus recently I really can’t comprehend their popularity either), plus Stieg Larsson’s imaginatively-titled Girl With…. doorstops and half-arsed horror and cack crime fiction by the likes of Karin Slaughter – there was simply no way in the world I was going to be seen, even by total strangers, with my nose in a print wedge of mummy porn. So I turned to face the shelf directly behind me, which I discovered housed the paperback non-fiction bestsellers, which include biographies and autobiographies.

Amidst the predictable pap I found the laughable This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl (he’s not fucking dead yet, his life and times are now and they’re ongoing), and, worse still, a 500-page autobiography by Bear Bullshitter Grylls. Entitled Mud, Sweat and Tears (the man’s such a hero: having broken his spine in 36 places and being told by doctors he’d never walk again at the age of 21, by virtue of his sheer determination he defied all the odds to become the youngest person to climb Everest just 18 weeks after his accident. Or something). I was also interested and elated to see that in between her tireless questing to find her missing daughter and clearing her own name, Kate McCann’s managed to pen a 500-page memoir about her tireless quest to find her missing daughter, and of course, all of the royalties will be used to fund doubling the number of investigators for Interpol, because Madeline, the first young girl ever to disappear, must be found and she is most definitely alive because they’ve produced CGI images of how she looks now.

 

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Bear Grylls: that’s not mud he’s covered in.

It’s not that I want to belittle the achievements of others, but I can’t help but question their motives, and the motive of the publishers, too. The rack of ‘real-life trauma’ tomes only highlights how fucked up the whole deal is. With titles like Groomed (subtitle: ‘An Uncle Who Went Too Far. A Mother Who Didn’t Care. A Little Girl Who Waited for Justice.’ and Little Prisoners: A tragic story of siblings trapped in a world of abuse and suffering, there are many questions to be asked, and not just who buys these books, and what do they get out of it?

Of course, these are radically different strains of shit lit from 50 Shades. Or are they? These titles all engender vicarious living, and lead readers into territories they wouldn’t otherwise dare – or want – to enter for themselves. If Bridget Jones represented the everywoman, then the facile Twilight transplant characters who populate the 50 Shades trilogy represent the everywoman’s kinky fantasies, a peek through the keyhole into a netherworld that’s less seedy than swinging because, well, it’s always more exciting and fun when there’s a rich powerful man involved. The real-life tales of atrocities perpetrated on children are just another aspect of Eastenders syndrome: it’s as depressing as fuck and the regular viewers watch it because the daily trials, tribulations and agonising ordeals of the characters make them feel better about their own pathetic shitty lives. Perhaps it is sick, perhaps the society’s sick, but it’s alright if it makes you feel better.

Critics and ‘quality’ writers can and will endlessly berate such titles and despair at their immense popularity, and the fact 50 Shades is the biggest ‘literary’ phenomenon since Dan Brown exploded with the formulaic potboiler The Da Vinci Code and its immediate successor, which was in turn the biggest ‘literary’ phenomenon since J K Rowling’s ever-lengthier succession of Harry Potter titles speaks volumes. But as I commented in a previous piece, Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critics’ positive assessment of any given text.

I read a few excerpts of the 50 Shades books on line, using the Amazon ‘look inside’ function, which it has to be said is no substitute for browsing in a bookshop but can save some embarrassment. Of course , the one who should be embarrassed is Erika Leonard, better known as E. L. James – embarrassed by her shamefully poor, GCSE-standard prose and the fact that she’s coining it off the back of such low-grade fiction. It’s the literary equivalent of KFC.

Just as fast food and the so-called obesity epidemic threaten to drown the populace in tsunami of fat, so shit lit is just one more example of the zombifying brainrot media that’s endemic. It’s perhaps fair to say that, finally, the novel truly is dead. I now consider it my duty to bury it.

 

And if you’re loving my work, the ‘Fifty Shades of Shit’ special edition of This Book is Fucking Stupid is out now on Amazon Kindle.