Hazel McHaffie

The Society of Authors

A laugh a minute

Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.

I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.

Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.

Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.
I know exactly what he means.

In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.
And Dickens got:
he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!

Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.
Ouch!

Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.

Have a fun week!

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Lost in the avalanche

A fair chunk of this week could be labelled as ‘stock-taking’. The sixth novel just out … the next one finished … the eighth well on its way … where next? I blame the dawn chorus – it seems to reach an astonishing crescendo at 4am and acts as an most reliable alarm clock. Thereafter I lie in bed reflecting … and counting questionmarks … and somehow idle thoughts have a habit of turning into heavy duty contemplation.

Stats don’t help. Did you know that over 130,000 new titles were published last year in the UK alone? Hard to picture that number, isn’t it? Of course, set against calamities like the current serious repercussions from the budget, and more deaths in Afghanistan, and England’s comprehensive trouncing by the Germans, this news is small fry, but for a writer it’s a significant statistic. How is anyone going to notice my little books in that avalanche?

Remember RememberSo it was especially gratifying to learn that Waterstone’s in Princes Street made a bit of a feature of Remember Remember on one of their internal displays – of their own volition, I might add; no financial incentive from the publisher. I didn’t actually see it but someone in the book business told me about it. I’m not too proud to have sneaked in specially to stand and stare, (and taken a snapshot for you,) had I known, but by the time my spies reported, the store had moved on to their next feature.

It’s a funny old career, mine. And as Andrew Rosenbeim, Editor of The Author (the official journal of The Society of Authors) says: ‘Trying to make a living by writing … requires a skill set that isn’t gifted on birth, a persistence that would deter most, and a commitment which, oddly (considering that writing is about communication) is almost impossible to convey.’

The advice generally handed out for nothing: Don’t give up the day job! Having already given mine up a few years ago, I need to periodically review progress and weigh up options. Hence this week’s naval gazing.

Oh, I nearly forgot … I learned this week (from Amanda Ross writing in The Sunday Telegraph) that some publishers and editors pay to get their books onto lists – yes, as in greasing palms with real filthy lucre. And there was I taking the statistics re bestsellers on trust! I’m sure there’s a moral lurking there somewhere.

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