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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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writer pasternakGoodreads is an online social meeting place for the bookish. You read a book and you tell the world what you thought about it. You score, you rate and pontificate to your heart’s content. You even get to list the books you’ve read, are reading, or intend to read. Thus, like all good social media, it affords one a means of showing off to people who really couldn’t care less.

As for the writers among us, you don’t have to be a proper published author to be listed. Even self published ebooks, hastily cobbled and given away, are on there too, so it’s an inclusive, impartial and non-partisan catalogue, which has to be good.

But before signing up and contributing to the heaps of unsolicited critique already on there, remember Goodreads is an advertising platform aimed at selling you stuff you probably don’t need. It also, crucially, has a business model of which we, the bookish, are an integral part, providing a vast quantity of free content, both the commentary, and (in the case of us self published authors) even the stuff that’s commented upon. In return it allows us occasionally to “share” in the success of selected famous authors by engaging in online Q and A sessions with them, but again, remember, this sharing is a means of advertising the said author’s works, or at the very least maintaining their profile at our own unpaid expense.

In short, Goodreads is pure genius.

But it doesn’t quite work for me, and the main reason is this: I’ve never been comfortable critiquing the work of another author. True, I do have a Goodreads account and have “reviewed” books I’ve enjoyed, but it’s rare I’ll take out the hatchet, because I don’t feel qualified, and would rather not say anything if I cannot say something positive. To say a work is rubbish, as Goodreads’ army of unpaid reviewers often do, tells us more about the reviewer than the book. This is perhaps the reviewer’s intention anyway, though with the reviewer perhaps hoping it will make them appear more intelligent, when actually all it reveals is their ignorance.

There’s something crass about denigrating creativity, be it from the pen of a master, or a teenage amateur just starting out in college romances on Wattpad. We all have it in us to be creative, but it takes courage to expose one’s self to public scrutiny. Many are put off by fear of the snide intellect tearing their work to shreds, pointing out spelling mistakes, poor grasp of grammar, or generally berating them as a shrivelling worthless fraud.

My English teacher used to do it with great panache; but it was his job. His caustic red pen and his tartly encircled “see me’s” were intended (I hope) to raise my game, but we needn’t take criticism from anywhere else at all seriously, especially amateur criticism from the likes of Goodreads or Amazon, or any other public bookish forum where people basically think out loud without a care for who they hurt in the process. This is just noise. People like to moan, and the angrier and the more depressed they are by life, the more they will moan about everything else.

The creative sphere, becoming as it is, increasingly de-monetised, need no longer be a battle of Egos for market share. De-monetised – literally writing for free – it has become more a sea of ideas, reflective of the collective turmoil of human thought in which anyone with a genuine and sincerely felt point of view is of equal worth and quite frankly beyond criticism. What creatives are about is the expression of the deeper human condition, feeding a hunger that comes from so far beyond the usual pedestrian measure of these things as to be almost paranormal. To create is the finest and most satisfying thing a we can do. To sneer at another’s work is not, especially when you’ve not paid for that work, and your opinion has not been asked for.

I have no reason to complain of my ratings on Goodreads since my average is 3.5 out of 5, which I take to be the sunnier side of middling, but I also note my early works score more highly than my later ones – my later ones scoring nothing at all. Is this a question of advancing apathy on the reader’s part regarding the time-line of my bibliography, or is it more an advancing senility on my own? Am I, in short, losing it? I’d begun to wonder about that, especially as I struggle to find my way with the current work in progress, but there is no worthwhile analysis to be had from the noise, and for the writer such a plethora of opinion can only be, at best, distracting, at worst discouraging. And anything discouraging for the writer is best avoided altogether because we’ve got enough to worry about as it is.

Writing for free, we must not allow amateur “ratings” or even the lack of them to guide our hand, and we should remember at all times the only person we need to keep on board is our selves. Trust only that if we have connected deeply enough with a piece of our own work – sufficient at least to finish it – the chances are others will connect with it too – not everyone for sure, indeed probably very few, but enough to make it worth our efforts. By all means chatter away on Goodreads, list the books you’ve read to show your friends how bookish you are, but remember, at the end of the day, like all social media, it’s basically meaningless to those it purports to serve, and of tangible importance only to those who control it.

I have been a creator of things all my life, and in that time have noticed also how non-creatives are quick to assume positions of power over us, finding ways to exploit the creatives for gains they are unwilling to share, treating us as second class citizens, milking us as unpaid cash cows. Goodreads and its ilk are the product of two decades of internetification – an evolution of sorts. This goes for my work too, though we come from opposing ideologies. Goodreads is about making something out of nothing, while I and others like me, in all our nothingess, rise powerfully from something the non-creative critic or self styled amateur marketing copywriter has any concept of.

So remember, dear un(der)paid writer, if you’re still smarting after that last semi-literate review of your heart-felt autobiography, or the novel you were sure would change the world, but which has yet to score anything at all on Goodreads review system, or indeed anywhere else, write on regardless because it’s always been that way. Have faith only in what inspires you and never mind the rest. It’s not much encouragement, but it’s all you’re going to get, and as any writer of experience will tell you, looking for encouragement beyond oneself is to take the world of idle chatter far more seriously than it deserves.

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tennerSimple answer: no, not under any circumstances. You must never pay a publisher anything, not for reading, editing, polishing, publishing, distributing or promoting your book.

Nothing.

There’s a suggestion these days this is rather old fashioned advice, like not wearing a tank-top to the office, or mixing your drinks, that the times have changed with all this online whizz-bang stuff and surely an inexperienced author would benefit from some “paid” services in shining up their manuscript in order to attract a publisher. But actually things haven’t changed at all. Whether we are publishing electronically or on paper, if it’s 2015, or 1915, publishers who ask writers for money are vanity publishers; they are predators, they are the bogeymen on the shady periphery of the writing world. Our grandmothers terrified us as children with cautionary tales of their sneaky antics. They are like big cats stalking their prey, always on the lookout for the lame author on the periphery of the herd, sick and burning up with the fever of self-delusion that their book is going to change the world, if they could only get it out there.

They praise him, seduce him, convince him of their faith in his mastery of the craft, convince him of his inevitable success for only a small up front investment. So the author hands his money over, and falls into the machine that will eventually mince his self worth to sorry shreds, and he will come out the other end as unknown and as unpublished as before. If in doubt, follow the money – not the promise of it tomorrow but where it’s going today, then ask who gains, who loses? If it’s you who’s writing the cheque, then it’s you my friend. You lose.

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece on one such online “publisher”, Lulu.com. They offer print on demand services for free but with some extra paid services like editing and promotional work. I was complimentary about the quality of Lulu’s printed product, but keen to steer would-be authors away from those tantalisingly glossy paid services, because you just know it’s going to go wrong. The books I had from them in the early days were the equal, visually at least, of any commercial paperback. But this was all a long time ago and I’ve moved on. Those books went to the charity shop and I was grateful they took them. As for paid editing and distribution services – no thanks. Yet authors comment on that piece time and again, telling me how they handed over money and received little or nothing in return. I feel desperately sorry for them, and understand their dilemma.

The fire that ignites a piece of work does not die when the work is finished. We want to change the world with it, we want readers to purr with delight at the run of our prose, and the critics to trumpet in adulation at the planet-like proportions of our intellect, and the laser precision of our insight. And we want the opposite sex to fall at our feet when they learn they are in the presence of a published author. But really this is very small minded, and we have to get over it. There are a lot of writers out there, all of them better than us, and no one’s heard of them either. As for changing the world, really, no one cares that much about anything, least of all as much as you care about it.

As I write this, it’s going up for midnight on a Saturday night, and I don’t know why I’m writing it, or for whom. I had decided blogging about writing, was an increasingly fallow tag, and I wouldn’t do it any more as there are far more interesting topics to write about. I suppose the real topic here is more the perennial egoic delusion of our self worth, and all the dangers that lie therein, that it will divest us of our dignity, render us tender prey to the publishing troll. But I’m bursting with an opinion on this tonight, and bloggers don’t need publishers in order to find listeners.

So if you’re a writer, unpublished but trying hard, struggling in the storm tossed waves to make a difference, do not think you can make a difference by paying someone to get you published. A real publisher takes a chance on an author, asks for nothing up front and pays them, usually, and usually not much to begin with. The problem is there are so many of us writing, and only a small paid-publishing trough. How we get our snouts in it has always been a mystery, but we do not get ahead by listening to the siren voices of the bogeymen. That’s how we get taken to the cleaners.

Don’t do it.

 

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885They say a writer should always write for the market, in other words write whatever’s selling. Who are “they”? Well, a lot of them are people who write self help books for writers on how to get published. “Study the market”, they say, then sit down and write stories to suit it. And if you’re a naive young writer, trying to narrow the odds of getting published, this appears to make sense. But in reality what’s popular at the moment may not be popular by the time you’ve worked out what it is, and written something similar. If you’re not careful you’ll spend your life chasing your tail, pursuing the mythical golden genre, which is, sadly, a genre you’ll never catch up with.

So, what about now? What’s currently trending? Well, I might have said tales of teen vampires and spankbuster stories. But I suspect I’m wrong because I was never any good at studying the market and, judging by the glut of said spankbuster novels I saw  in the charity shop this weekend, I suspect that genre may already be on the wane. Certainly by the time I wrote one they’d be as passée as sideburns and flared trousers. But, actually, I don’t want to write one, because in writing specifically what I feel someone else wants to read I would not be fulfilling the contract with myself as a writer, and I’d probably dry up after the first chapter. What writing is for me, is finding the button which, once clicked, the writing writes itself while I sit back and am entertained, intrigued, informed and healed by the words that appear under my fingers. This is not writing for the market, or with a view  to publishing. It’s writing for myself, and it’s the most satisfying kind of writing there is.

It is not the writer, but the unconscious imagination that delivers this miracle, and what it delivers may not always be popular, commercially lucrative, nor even intelligible to another human being. I write what I write, but if no one else is interested in it, that’s not sufficient reason for me to stop writing. We write best when we write what pours most naturally out of us, otherwise it’s like telling someone what we think they want to hear; it maintains the status quo, but it never moves things on. So, throw away that self help book; do not write for the market; write what you want to write; be a warrior-writer, an explorer of the unknown. This way the more fortunate of you will be the ones who hit upon the next big thing, discovering the new killer-genre that a generation of self-help hopefuls will try to copy.

And the publishers will suddenly love you.

Of course the majority of you who set off down this path, will never find a publisher, your genres will always be too obscure, and eventually your tales will wind up in the commercial wasteland of the online world where they will wander in perpetuity like lost souls. But again, that’s not sufficient reason to stop writing, especially since now you will find readers, unlike in the pre online days when you would not.

The imagination is an infinite resource, but not one to be mined as if for gold, more for that which wants to see the light of day. This is where the stories are born and where they grow. The writer sets them down, for himself first, then for others. But the imagination does not work in neat genre folders. It is what it is, and what comes out of it is as unique as the teller of the story.

In the psychology of Jung, there is a natural creative tension between the conscious mind and the unconscious. We do not know what lies in the unconscious, but throughout our lives its contents, which are hinted at in dreams and snatches of imagination, press for acceptance, to be assimilated into conscious awareness. Reluctance to deal with the unconscious results in mental illness and a seriously unbalanced life. On the other hand, directly courting its contents through the written word can give us the appearance of being mentally ill, when actually what we’re achieving is a better balance.

Some writers then, and I count myself among them, write primarily for themselves, as a means of self understanding and self healing. This might sound self indulgent, but there is a common bond between human beings, since we rise from the same collective psychical substrate, so what I have felt and suffered, there’s a good chance you have felt and suffered too. The writer therefore lights the path, so others might gain insight and comfort from the fact they are not the first to pass this way.

But now we’re getting deeper into the psychology of the written word, and it becomes apparent there are two kinds of story. There is the story that takes us out of ourselves, puts us in the skin of another person and presents an entertaining, though undemanding alternative experience of life. And then there’s the story that puts us in a skin which, though at first unfamiliar, we realise is essentially our own, and it casts us in a situation which, though it at first seems strange, even outrageous, we realise mirrors our own lives. These are the stories that make us look more closely at ourselves and how we live.

Most of they money’s in the first kind of story, and a writer might spend his whole life chasing it, spurred on by the desire to be known as a writer, to wear the tweed jacket and bow tie of the mythical bardic breed. There are many good writers who make the realm of genre fiction their own, and make a living at it, but many more who aspire to it and fail, to lie instead embittered and broken on the trail.

The second kind of story is a stony road – I suppose you might call it the literary path – the novel as an artform. I’m not saying there’s no money in literary novels, but it’s probably best to consider it from the outset void of remuneration unless you’re already in cahoots with a publisher and his marketing machine. Future generations may laud your genius, but for now its best to view yourself as just another self conscious, self indulgent loser. And that’s fine because those pursuing this path are less interested in the epithet of “writer”, less interested in a lucrative publishing deal, and more  in discovering what it means to be a human being.

Their stories may be strange and unsettling, or even unreadable, unless a literary critic tells us first they’re worth the eye popping agony of ploughing through them. But that they provided sufficient energy for their own creation, through the channel of a writer’s imagination, is justification enough for their existence and they will surely find readers in their own good time. In the mean time they may languish for decades on free to download websites, long after their author has passed away, but it doesn’t matter; the deed is done. It’s simply what writers do, and we should be grateful now for the catch all medium of the Internet for their preservation.

If you want to write, don’t write for the market – just write!

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man writingRows keep breaking out between Amazon and the world of corporate publishing. It goes like this: Amazon squeezes the publisher’s profit margin by insisting on lower prices, the publisher bends as much as they can, keen for access to Amazon’s awesome distributive power, while trying to maintain a decent cut for themselves. And if Amazon’s not happy with the deal they switch off the “buy” button. If the reader wants that publisher’s titles, they have to get them from somewhere else, they’ll be harder to find, and more expensive. None of this is personal; it’s just business.

From my perspective the struggles going on in contemporary publishing are merely symptoms of a near extinct business model, and its inevitable demise at the hands of a scary new predator. Amazon has sharp teeth and is using them to reshape the way we buy books – or indeed anything else for that matter. The big publishing houses may yet find their balance and survive in some new shape or form, I don’t know, and I find it hard to care. What interests me more is what all this means for the aspiring writer.

Traditionally, a writer plugged away in obscurity for years in order to finish “the novel”, then they spent even more years debasing themselves in search of the beneficence of the notoriously mercurial literary agent. The agent then fixed it so a publisher would read their work. If the publisher liked it, then began the writer’s slow rise from obscurity to mid-list mediocrity – except in rare cases, where a chosen few were invited to the top table of celebrity authorship. Here, in exchange for getting their teeth fixed, they might at last sup from the publisher’s golden chalice.

For the aspiring writer, at the bottom of the money chain, this system left much to be desired. To be a writer, and happy, you had to be either pathologically deluded or well connected. For the publishers and the agents though, it worked very well, enabling them to exploit a limitless ocean of creativity on which they floated their luxury liners. When they were low on talent to stoke the boilers, they just reached down and pulled another one on board. It was obvious anyone who came along and threatened this centuries old system was going to be viewed in a dim light. But unless you’ve been living on another planet this past ten years, it’s impossible to miss the fact that something is changing. Many of the smaller luxury liners have now been torpedoed. The ones that remain have become overloaded with hangers on and are sailing pretty low in the water.

There’s no shortage of writers to stoke the boilers of course, but to stretch the nautical metaphor to destruction, there’s now a problem in the engine room, and it’s this: the route from writer to reader is no longer controlled by the gatekeeper of traditional publishing. That you’re even reading this is proof that anyone can publish anything now, for nothing and find an audience. Surf over to Amazon or Smashwords and you’ll find novels by unknown writers for free, or for a couple of quid. Most of them look and sound crap, as most blogs are also meaningless crap, but this new age does shed rather a clinical light on the traditionally published stuff, a light that strips these expensively marketed and slickly edited works of their mystique, and you know what? A lot of them are crap too.

So, anyone can publish anything? Isn’t that great? Well, on the one hand, yes, but on the other,whether anyone notices you or not is a matter of luck, unless you’re prepared commit some heinous act on the basis there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But by the same token, there’s been many a traditionally published book pulped long before the public has had time to wake up to it. As any aspiring writer with more than ten years experience will tell you, traditional publishing is no guarantee of making any money at all, let alone fame and fortune – neither is the fact of getting that novel miraculously published. So you’re published, so what? We’re still turning up obscure Victorian authors and lauding them as undiscovered geniuses, but who died penniless, believing themselves failures in their own time.

So, the question is this: does the “Amazon” way of doing things, torpedoing those fuddy duddy publishers and bursting the market wide open, make it any easier for your average unknown person to take up the pen and make a decent living at it? The answer of course is a resounding no – indeed, you still have to be slightly mad even to try it. Really, don’t do it. Get yourself a proper job and, write in your spare time.

I can shift a few hundred of my titles on Feedbooks and Smashwords each week, by giving them away, and that’s fine, I seem to be happy with that, but if I were to charge so much as pennies for them, that hit-rate would dwindle to a trickle that was hardly worth logging in to check. True, some authors have done well, financially, by self-publishing, and good luck to them, but then some authors always do make it big – it just doesn’t happen very often and the likes of Amazon won’t change that.

Publishing will always be about celebrity and the shifting of large numbers of catchy titles, crap or otherwise, at a tenner each. As profit margins are squeezed, those writers in the “paid but mediocre” bracket will find themselves squeezed out too as a bigger slice of the marketing cake is reserved for those authors with the perfect teeth. More and more writers will be joining the scruffy ranks of the indy scene, self-publishing for peanuts, while scratching a living doing minimum wage type jobs. It’s not a rosy picture, but then it never was. Creative individuals will always be at the mercy of patronage, wherever it comes from. Yes, things are changing drastically at the money end of the book business, but for your average aspiring writer, it looks pretty much like business as usual to me.

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detail - girl writing by daniel garber 1917There’s a lot of ignorance regarding the kind of people who self publish (losers) and those who have conventional publishing contracts, and sign their books in Waterstones (proper writers and gurus of all things literary). If I were ever to make the mistake of bragging about my writing to strangers, the first question to come back at me would be “are you published?” and by published we mean the glossy paperback in Waterstones. The answer would be no, and the conclusion would be that I was not a proper writer, just a “yakker and a bragger”, as a famous American writer recently opined.

But my figures for the past three years tell me my books have been downloaded around a quarter of a million times, so I think I can safely say that, although I’m not published in the conventional sense, my work has reached a wide audience. It also receives generally positive feedback from readers. So, perhaps it’s our definitions that need to change. Perhaps it’s those who insist on conventionally published glory at any price who are the yakkers and the braggers – they who are responsible for perpetuating the myth that the conventionally published form confers upon its neophytes a greatness that self publishing does not.

The publishing industry has now congealed into just a handful of big companies. Like the rest of commerce, it’s all gone very slick and corporate and image-conscious. Books and their authors are cosmetically modified into marketable brands – even those authors who speak out against such things. When we buy a conventionally published book from the highstreet, we are buying into the myth of the author and their brand, but like with those toothpastes that slowly dissolve your teeth, we can sometimes be disappointed, even with what we thought were household names.

Writing is of course the perfect medium for the shy, the introspective, the wall-flowers and the pathological limelight dodgers of this world – but I’m not describing your typical branded author here. The type of personality who takes well to writing is not necessarily the type who takes well to publishing. I recognise, in my case, it’s more of a blessing I was never invited to join in with that world, that indeed self-publishing is exactly my sort of medium. But we self publishers must also grow up, shed our insecurities and accept we’ve as much idea what constitutes proper writing as anyone else.

Through self-publishing or blogging or even tweeting, the process of publishing has become – for want of a better word – democratised; anyone can do it, anyone can add their voice to the cultural milieu. Indeed, I think talented writers who were formerly denied their voice have now begun to move writing on, through self publishing and blogging. They are shaping the milieu, and wrestling the lead away from that quaint old system that used to dictate what was considered proper writing in the first place.

Perhaps it’s not surprising the world of corporate publishing and their branded authors are busy demonising the online world, trying to make out that it’s content is so puerile it will rot our brains. But don’t listen. The internet does not have a monopoly on poor material, just as the corporate publishing world does not have a monopoly on intelligent debate.

One of the greatest strengths of self-publishing is its interactivity. You put something out, people comment, you learn from it, form new ideas or reinforce old ones, and you comment on their stuff. This is how ideas grow and flow, and shape the world. That has to be better than having a handful of branded authors and critics dictate what is and is not best practice, or best thought. That just seems old fashioned.

I do not possess a sexy publicity photo, and I have yet to be shortlisted for the Man-Booker prize. My ideas and my themes may not resonate, and they might never feature in the firmament of collective human thought, but as ideas go they’re as good as anyone else’s. And so are yours. How to be an independent author?

Sit down. Read. Think. Write. Self-publish.

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