You know what’s hot right now, other than global warming? Tearing down your peers in order to promote your new book! And it’s not new authors, desperate for any kind of media coverage they can get – these are well-established authors who all seem to be hopping on the latest controversy bandwagon. But why are they doing it? Does it result in more sales or is a just a ploy to get your name ‘out there’?
For a while there, it seemed like a queue of predominantly white male authors were awaiting their turn to declare that the novel (as they knew it) was dead. Will Self being the most vocal (who even is he??!). It was all a bit pathetic really – writers bemoaning the fact that their work was no longer relevant and choosing to denounce the younger generation for their lack of taste rather than accept that their books mightn’t be as good as they thought they were. Or that, like the rest of us mere mortals, their books have no guarantee of a warm reception.
Irish author Colm Tóibín recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels.”
Asked which books he felt were most overrated, he said: “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”
So clearly, Colm has read ALL THE BOOKS and they’re all boring. Thanks for that Colm, inspirational.
Poor old John Banville can only write ‘genre’ under a pseudonym, lest his good name and reputation be besmirched by popular fiction. It’s a form of snobbery, looking down one’s nose at other writers, and readers for that matter. Like the ‘real book’ brigade who scoff at eBooks and their readers. Like, get over yourself and the delusion that you are the sole arbiter of good taste. By dismissing things that people enjoy, you are dismissing them and what matters to them. And to me, this seems a very foolish thing to do.
The most recent author to diss an entire genre is Louise Doughty, when she told The Guardian (why is it always The Guardian?) “I can’t bear anything chicklitty or girly.”
Wow. Can’t bear it, eh? Any book in particular, or just every book written by a woman who has been classified under the broadest commercial fiction genre EVER? Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but such an established writer must be aware of how dismissive this sounds to her peers? How many years have female authors been fighting this exact kind of stigma associated with chick lit? It’s a marketing tag, that has unfortunately sidelined contemporary romcoms written by women as vacuous, vapid and unimportant. The definition of chick lit is ‘a heroine-centred narrative‘, so far so brilliant, and luckily for us fans, promotes a whole plethora of styles, voices and subject matter. In fact, categorising novels by a single criterion is such a reductive exercise anyway, the dismissive tone used by this authors is at best, unhelpful.
I also think the media has a lot to answer for here. If an author is asked their opinion, they have every right to give it. It was the editor’s choice to pick that one quote from the interview and run it as click-bait on all social media platforms. And this seems to be the way of it now – the newspaper takes the most inflammatory line from an article, tweets it and watches the book world have a meltdown. And that my friends, is marketing.
But in case you were thinking literary authors were safe from all this criticism, think again. Sally Rooney has committed a cardinal sin – the worst thing you can do in literary fiction – she has sold a lot of books. It’s one thing garnering critical acclaim, but to be successful in the monetary sense can risk the loss of your member’s card to the ‘serious’ literary writers club. Will Self (him again!) ‘bravely’ took it upon himself to put her back in her place by labelling her writing as ‘lacking ambition’, lest she go getting any ideas that she might have earned her place among the literati. Fortunately we have men like him to save us from our own bad taste.
Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard has her finger on the pulse and her tongue firmly in her cheek with this latest tweet:
I have a new book out next week. I should probably get cracking on my clickbait-y declaration that [INSERT POPULAR GENRE] is [SWEEPING GENERALISATION ABOUT BOOKS I CLEARLY HAVE NEVER READ] because insulting the majority of people who *actually buy books* is a strategy, right?
— Catherine Ryan Howard (@cathryanhoward) August 18, 2019
So is this the future for authors? A newspaper article in which they upset not only their fellow authors, but the millions of readers who enjoy their books? And while everyone has the right to speak their mind, it is the contrivance to cause controversy that seems to be the PR drug of choice these days. To me, it just makes people look arrogant and insecure. I’ve always been taught that people who try to make you feel small are only doing it so they can feel big. Authors dismissing other genres must have some dire need to feel important, or to be seen as superior, i.e. someone whose work matters. But newsflash, we all matter and a bit of diplomacy goes a long way.
We are all creatures of habit and of course we tend to gravitate to certain styles of writing and subject matter. There is nothing wrong with that and there is nothing wrong with not liking a book. Art is subjective. But when does it stop being an opinion and start being derisory? Good critique is backed up by fact and reason (like books where the characters are under-developped, for example) but generalisations that have no real basis tell us nothing constructive. The truth is, there are crap writers and crap books everywhere. There are crap literary books, crap self-published books, crap traditionally published books, crap YA books, crap detective novels, crap books by men, crap books by women … but to give one broad sweep of criticism to any of these categories is just ignorant and lazy.
I have always found the writing community to be supportive and always remember the first time I read another saying that there is room enough for all of us. We don’t have to compete by putting one another down. Most readers, like myself, read across genres, so in the long run, it’s probably wiser to big up your fellow authors rather than risk alienating your audience. Your readership could well overlap. But just on a human level, as Michelle Obama once said, when they go low, we go high!