Posts Tagged Kingsley Amis

Why playing safe in publishing is riskier than ever

I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste‘. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’

Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.

I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.

Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.

The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.

It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.

One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.

Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.

But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.

(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)

Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…

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Why writers give the best parties

Party scenes are a gift for a writer – here’s my celebration

I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.

Which makes them perfect for a story.

For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.

A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.

What parties can do in a story

Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.

Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.

A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.

You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.

Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.

A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)

My rules for a good party

So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:

1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.

2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.

3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.

4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.

Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…

How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!

 

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