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Making the New York Times happy

Making the New York Times happy

Some thoughts that have been skittering around my brain-pan like:

  • Kittens on a polished floor.
  • Dried chickpeas in a Bedouin caravan
  • Corks on the eddy beneath a weir
  • A flapper girl dancing at the Ritz with her caddish beau
  • The final stages of the flea high-jump Olympics

Selection of simile is according to customer choice and on a first-come-first-served basis.

Before those thoughts, I will just say that a lot of you have been irritated by some slow and somewhat glitchy behaviour on our Townhouse community. It doesn’t affect everyone, and has been getting better, but it’s still annoying when it happens to you. We are aware of the issues and have got a team of boffins working on them. I hope there’ll be a major improvement by the end of this month. Here endeth the housekeeping.

Thought the first

A while back, I had a chat with my agent about an author who had just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I said that I’d read the book and just didn’t think it was much good. No particular prose excellence. A slightly silly story. The whole thing feeling more like a performance than a story you could invest in.

My agent agreed, but said that the author in question was very good at playing the literary game – essentially, she knew how to act the Grand Literary Author, so people had a tendency to believe her act.

Thought the second

A while back, I mentioned that I’d been reading Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novella about the Magdalen laundries in Ireland. (The laundries were run by convents, mostly, and took in prostitutes or, indeed, simply unmarried girls who had become pregnant. In theory, these places offered rehabilitation, but in practice often kept their inmates for life, and in very restrictive conditions. The system collapsed in the 1990s and the Irish government formally apologised in 2013.)

There’s no question that Keegan is an excellent prose writer: understated, subtle, deft, confident. But at the same time, there’s something a little strange going on, isn’t there? The book was published in 2022 and told a story set in the Christmas of 1985. The book was nominated for, and won, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.

And, OK, I liked the book, though probably not enough to give it any kind of major award. But an award for political fiction. Huh?

Politics is, presumably, a system for allowing society to sort through its choices. Higher tax or less tax? More immigration or less immigration? More pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, or all teaching staff to be paid exclusively in biscuits?

In any interesting political conversation, there’s something to be said for both sides. Indeed, for any interesting political conversation to happen at all, there have to betwo sides – or more.

When it comes to the Magdalen Laundries, however, there aren’t two sides. There’s just the one. Absolutely everyone in the entire world, including the Irish Taoiseach and the Pope and Bono and probably every priest in Ireland, thinks that the Magdalen Laundries were a Bad Thing.

So a political prize has been awarded to a book that is arguing something even less controversial than “War Can Be Rather Nasty” or “Democracy is Quite Good Really”.

Why? Why bother? Why even call the book political, when it clearly is nothing of the sort?

Thought the third

One more thought – an alarming one.

What if you can’t escape your own branding? Or rather: what if you can’t escape the branding that you’re given by Publisher Island & Media Land?

Anyone looking at my own publication history will see some decently reviewed commercial fiction, some odds and ends of non-fiction (at the less hefty end of the scale), and that’s it. But what if – as I do – I have a highly literary project to sell?

Literary fiction needs reviews in a way that commercial fiction doesn’t, so the stuff needs to appeal to reviewers. If I had spent the last ten years traipsing around the literary salons of London and saying the right things about the right books, and mwah-ing plenty with the right editors and critics, and having minor spats with the sort of people that I was meant to have minor spats with, wouldn’t my profile be very different from what it actually is?

And sure: you can definitely go from Major Literary Figure to Writes Crime Novels for Fun and Money. But can you make the move the other way around? Won’t reviewers worry that if you’re a lightweight crime novelist at heart, any supposedly literary undertaking will have an emptiness at its centre, a fundamental unseriousness?


Well, I don’t know.

I do think that authors and books which carefully set out to please to the New York Times are (unsurprisingly) more likely to please the New York Times. And since the NYT is massively influential, you don’t just win that one newspaper, you have an excellent chance of establishing a particular opinion about you in Media Land generally.

That’s why, I think, books like Claire Keegan’s get so heavily praised. Being any kind of reviewer or critic involves exposure. “I’m tempted to think X, but what if everyone else thinks Y? I’ll be like the only child who dressed up as Tinkerbell for World Book Day, when everyone else was doing something from the Hunger Games.”

So if the opinion you’re being asked to hold is an utterly safe one (“Magdalen Laundries? Ooh, ooh, I know the answer! They were baaaaad …”), there’s a kind of relief. You won’t be the only Tinkerbell in the playground. You can safely rest assured that all the other kids will come as Tinkerbell too. The equation is roughly:

                Claire Keegan = Good Author

                Claire Keegan’s prose = definitely Good Prose

                Theme of the Book = Ooh, yes, we definitely agree with everything here

                Overall Judgement = Must be a good book, right? It must be safe to say so.

And that’s why someone (I don’t mean Claire K) who writes a rather moderate book but has spent ten years acting the Great Literary Author has a competitive advantage over someone who has spent a long time writing about corpses and shootouts and things that are, y’know, actually fun.

I’d like a world where what mattered was the quality of the book itself, with no distractions about who the author has or has not air-kissed, or even about who the author has or has not thrown off a (fictional) cliff or near-drowned on a (fictional) trawler. I bet you’d like that world too.

But that is not the world we have and that’s a shame. On the other hand, the problem I’m talking about here is one that doesn’t really afflict debut novelists. For most of y’all, youse and you plural, this snow lies virgin, unprinted by boot, hoof, claw or tippy-toe.

That said, if you want to make of yourself a young literary cub, then go for it. Write for an acclaimed (if largely unread) literary magazine, help run a literary festival, get into a Twitter spat with someone. Those things will help.

If you want to write YA fiction, then it does truly help to be in the conversation. That might mean going to the right festivals, or engaging with agents / editors / booksellers / bloggers etc on Twitter, or it might mean some other form of engagement too. Those things too will definitely help.

And yet …

Well, the main thing is still the quality of your writing. I’ve never yet failed to sell a book that I really wanted to sell. I’ve not always looked like the person who ought to be writing it, but your writing alone should be enough to dispel those thoughts.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to go and write a book about how Global Warming Could Be Quite Bad. I’m going to follow that up with my bestseller on Why Big Tobacco Might Be an Itsy Bit Dodgy.

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  1. Harry, you’ve expressed far better than anything I could have come up with, a view I’ve held for a long time now. It isn’t how well you write, it’s what you write about that gets you published. I got Colleen Hoover’s ‘It Ends with Us’ from the library. Its popularity evident from the fact that it had to be returned in less than a week. I got as far as the middle, turning over the pages hoping to light upon whatever it was that made this a ‘must read’. I didn’t find it. But it was about domestic violence!
    The Emperor’s New Clothes – the child shouting, ‘But it’s not well written.’