The other day I read a tweet about preparing for festival season. I assumed that it was related to Electric Picnic or Glastonbury, advising us to get our ‘festival on’ by donning the obligatory uniform of wellies, trilby and cut off shorts. But imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I realised the tweet was referring to literary festivals and directed at authors who want to start booking their summer appearances now. When did this happen? When did authors become a troupe of travelling minstrels and what happened to the idea that writing is a solitary pursuit?
Writer Jason Guriel wrote a really interesting article this month ‘What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone?’ addressing this shift from what was always seen as an individual sport, to a community endeavour, and why he feels we are the worse off for it.
“writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another.”
It’s a controversial argument, but a very interesting one. Are all of these gatherings, talks, residencies and teaching gigs taking away from the one job we’re supposed to be doing – writing? As authors, we have been tasked with the job of getting our work ‘out there’ and I think the writing community has grown from that. But while many authors really enjoy engaging with the community, Guriel argues that if everyone is being pushed in the same direction, what happens to the independent spirit?
It is true that we need time alone to develop our own ideas – it’s hard enough not to be influenced by trends and seduced by mainstream ideas. In order to really create something truly original, we need to be alone with our thoughts and in order to do this, we need to guard our privacy. It’s nice to share, but writers need to keep a certain amount to themselves (namely, their selves). There is a risk that if you become too much of a spokesperson for your work, or a writing personality, the authentic voice of your work could get diluted. Not every writer is a loner, but they do tend to seek solitude in order to hear their own voice.
“Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids.” Kay Ryan, poet.
When I began writing, the buzz words were ‘author platform’ and if you didn’t have one, you’d never make it. So I made it my business to build my platform, one blog/tweet/post at a time. I got to know the main players and believed that I was on the right road to success. But then, I would see a complete unknown, an outsider if you will, speed past me to publishing fame with no platform whatsoever. No social media accounts, no blogs, no ground-works to speak of. While I was busy networking and making connections, they were writing and submitting. So you see, there really are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being a writer, you’ve got to do what’s right for you and more importantly, what works for you.
“‘What is the role of the writer to her society?’ was a question Wallace Stevens took up and his answer was: none,” says poet Souvankham Thammavongsa. A writer’s real responsibility, she suggests, is “to build a voice and to keep building that voice.” This stands in stark contrast to the civic-minded suggestion that writers apply their bricks and mortar to some cloud-city of togetherness.
Then there’s the whole ‘totes awky momo’ when someone you’ve been palling around with (in the literary sense) asks you to review their book and you don’t really like it… what do you do then? I know book bloggers (unfairly) get stick for this all the time, but it’s not just bloggers who get caught in this web of networking that make it increasingly difficult to go against the pack. I’ve noticed even with online bookclubs, when there is over-whelming support for a particular writer, anyone who feels differently is almost afraid to speak up. I have seen people apologise for not liking a book!
“It becomes harder to file an honest review of a book if you’re always rubbing shoulders.”
Still, I don’t believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water (I think there are laws against that now anyway). I believe that there is more integrity in the community than this article suggests, but I agree that we do need to challenge the status quo and question the prevailing wisdom around promoting the writing ‘scene’ as opposed to the community.
Personally, I love the community I have found, particularly online because I don’t have to dress up for them! Pretty much all of the writing opportunities I have found have been through social media. There is great support there, people share information on all sorts of things, particularly in the indie community and it’s good to meet people who are experiencing the same things. I love when other writers talk about how difficult it is to stay sitting down, or how your writing can seem like genius one minute and drivel the next. I feel a sense of solidarity. But I don’t discuss writing techniques with these people. I don’t learn my craft by talking to authors, I learn by reading their books. I learn how they deal with different challenges in their writing between the pages. Talk, as they say, is cheap, but if you really want to further your writing career, read.
While you’re here, The Heirloom is just 99p on Kindle all this week. Eva Green said she couldn’t put it down*
*Might have made that bit up