I have been getting a decent amount of reading done recently and one of the books I tore most ravenously through was Stet, a memoir by the long-serving and respected editor Diana Athill. Published at the dawn of the 21st century, at more or less the exact time I was first on the hunt for a publisher, it might be the best book about books I’ve ever read, and even if it isn’t, and I have somehow managed to forget some even better books about books I’ve read, which is highly unlikely, Stet is undoubtedly the best conversation I’ve had in recent memory about the publishing of books. Perhaps partly because this year saw the 20th anniversary of the publication of my own first book, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my experiences in the publishing industry – the good ones and the bad ones, the invaluable encouragement I’ve had from some quarters and the industrial grade twaddle I’ve been told by people with a strange, unnerving confidence in the correctness of their opinion – and how it’s all led me to the place where I now am with my writing: a place undoubtedly different to the one where I’d be if my writing path had been less rutted and varied. Because of that, you could say that Stet also fell into my hands at a particularly serendipitous time.
In a superficial way it might have been tempting for me to write off Athill – who died in 2019, at the vertiginous age of 101 – as having been potentially on The Dark Side, among the people who once assured me that what I am finally doing now as a writer would never work or find an audience and, above all, would not be allowed by them or any of the other well-to-do largely London-based folk who shape the reading public’s taste. She couldn’t be from a background much more different to mine: she grew up in the bucolic, Go-Betweenlike environment of Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk amidst a long established culture of servants and bloodsport (which, it should be noted, she soon rejected), was educated at Oxford, and embodied that particular kind of 20th Century poshness which seems to automatically go hand in hand with knowing lots of people called Margaret and assuming they all favour the nickname Peg. In Stet and the first of her books that I read, 1963’s similarly straight-talking and excellent Instead Of A Letter, she cites idleness as one of her main character traits. I have no degree or A levels, spent my childhood and adolescence in mining villages on the cusp of the English North with parents who had done their own growing up on council estates in Liverpool and Nottingham, and who – constantly terrified about money and the future, and me potentially growing up with neither – helped mould me into an imaginative workaholic, just like them. For many decades Athill was a commissioning editor, and subsequently director, at a famous and profitable traditional publishing house, André Deutsch: just the kind of company, were it still to exist, that, going on my own early experiences of getting some books published and failing to get some other books published, I assume might steer very assuredly away from the books I now crowdfund with Unbound, dismissing them as too leftfield or unsaleable or, quite probably, both.
Yet, while reading Stet, I couldn’t help suspecting that Athill and I would have got on extremely well. In fact, it was more than that. We did get on, and I received the distinct impression that, despite what divided us when it came to generation and class, she understood where I was coming from. “Poetry moves me most sharply when it ambushes me from a moment of prose, and I can’t really understand what it is that makes a person feel that to write it is his raison d’etre,” said Diana. “Yes!” I replied, giving the 104 year-old a high five over hibiscus tea, in her parlour. “I have felt this exact thing for so long, along with a suspicion that serious literary types would look down on me for it, and I am so glad someone else, especially someone so wise and well-read, feels the same and has put it so eloquently into words.” The two of us chatted for hours. I found it refreshing to hear about publishing from the other side: the difficulties of working with authors who were unfairly neglected, ego-crazed, and/or ill-equipped to double as human beings. The conversation was so lively and enlightening, in fact, that the very act of writing this here, now, on this website, springs chiefly from a pressing need to record it for myself before some of it inevitably slips away, plus to record some of the subsequent conversations I’ve been having with myself in the weeks since that go a fair way to indicating my state of mind as I move into my third decade as a published author. Would Diana’s articulate, thoughtful ghost actually want to hear these thoughts? Perhaps not because, as is very clear from the second half of Stet, she already more than put her time in when it came to providing a sympathetic ear to authors and their anxieties. Will these thoughts provide any assistance to newly published writers? Also perhaps not, since my own path has been such an odd one, shaped by my own blend of naivete, tenacity, defeats and bizarre optimism, and if it has any advice at all, it is perhaps only the bland and vague “Keep at it!” At the very least, unless all technology explodes in a ball of fire (as is looking increasingly likely), I’ll be able to look back at this digital entry at some distant future point and think, “Hmm, ok, so that was where I was, back then.”
Loosely speaking, the way publishing works is that you get a few books and authors that publishers, and the industry as a whole, gabble a lot about and really put some weight behind. Some of those books are very good, and some aren’t, but that’s not really the point. They’re big books, buzz books, and the sheer heft of coverage and chat about them makes them sell, at least for a while, although quite a few of them end up in charity shops, still unread, not long after that. Sometimes it can seem like these are the only books in the world, which is partly a function of that saturation, and partly a function of the fact that it’s probably easier to think of the planet of literature this way, because actually trying to comprehend how many books are out there – even how many books are published in the average week – makes your brain ache and prompts you to seek a quiet place to lie down. When you tell someone you’re a published author and they respond, “Oh really, would I have come across any of your work?” it is these books they are thinking about, and what the person asking you the question really means is “Are you one of those authors who get a huge marketing budget behind them and films made of their books and are constantly in people’s faces?” which is why I find the correct answer to the question is always “Definitely not”.
Beneath these big buzz books are the rest of us, so so many of us, on our various levels of being a “normal” author, some of which, with the help of some other writing and broadcasting, might even just about make a living at our trade. Just like those writers who actually exist up there above us on the surface of the world, our sales figures are not necessarily any reliable guide to the quality of our work. Many of us have no desire to be rich or famous and are somewhere between very wary and thoroughly phobic of the potential trappings of that kind of life. But many of us would also like to see our work a little more widely read, have a few more quid in the bank, if only to reassure ourselves that we will definitely be able to keep doing what we are doing until, as our self-employed author pension plans dictate, we are legally forced to stop doing so, due to an irreversible case of death. Some of us will even transcend the limitations placed on us by lack of marketing budget, distribution and “buzz”, becoming slowburn cult successes, assisted by excitable word of mouth. In this case, death will assist us greatly, as it will make us seem cooler, transform the neglect our art experienced during our lifetime from a humdrum phenomenon to a sexy, mysterious one. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Less than half a dozen people turned up when Hilary Mantel – already a veteran of several novels – did a reading and signing in the mid 90s at a library close to where I grew up, on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. By the second decade of this century, you’d have been hard pushed to find a reader of literary fiction in Britain who had not heard of her. Yet, having read several of them, I don’t think there’s much of an argument for Mantel’s early books being any less brilliant and special than her celebrated Wolf Hall trilogy. Here is that disappointingly bland and unmysterious lesson again: the key is probably just to keep on keeping on. And there is not even any guarantee that this will work, if you don’t happen to write books as great as Hilary Mantel did.
The above photograph of me was taken by my friend Pete Millson in late spring, 1999. In it, I’m 23 and just about to move to London so I can work full-time as the Music Critic for the Guardian, a newspaper I’ve been writing freelance music and film pieces for over the previous eighteen months. I’d turned down the job initially, never having had much desire to live in the capital, and already itching to write about many more subjects than music; then, after a mini-intervention from some individuals close to me, reconsidered. I can still remember a lot of what I felt back then: I enjoyed a lot about my working life, the gigs, dancing and larking about after them at niche club nights with my friends Vic (also half-pictured), Al and Pete and Surreal Steve, the opportunity the interviewing part of my job gave me to absorb the words of talented people who’d lived interesting and varied lives. In one sense, because of my background and lack of qualifications and where I suddenly found myself, my head spun constantly with the thrilling dizziness of the impostor, but the workload was much less fair and fun than my freelancing one had been, and my mind, ultimately, was on books. I was in a hurry, but not to climb any journalistic ladder. I wanted to get into a position to write and publish a novel as soon as possible. My sense of playing catch-up – a sense which hasn’t fully left me even now – with people better-educated than me who’d read a lot in their teens was acute. At home in my flat, I gazed towards my shelves at the secondhand American literary fiction I’d been buying since emerging from my sporty dropout adolescence and getting back into reading half a decade earlier, and I wanted to somehow find a way to suck all its sentences instantly into my brain: because I loved reading, but also because I felt, knew, I required those sentences to assist my confidence in being able to write The Book. Of all my feelings about writing at that time, this is the one I remember most acutely: “Just a load more reading, and I’ll be ready.” After all, I already had a fairly well-respected job using words for a living, the ideas I had for novels were virtually limitless, and I was starting to receive letters – yes, actual letters, it was still only spring 2000 – from publishers and literary agents who’d read my columns in the Guardian, asking me if I would consider writing something in a longer form. I was set to go, I thought. What else could I possibly need, apart from the greater knowledge of how to write a novel that comes only from reading them?
I’m sure there are budding authors who, during their 20s, think “Maybe I will write the book I want to one day but, y’know, maybe I need to get a bit more life under my belt and fail a few times first” but I don’t recall being one of them. Straight out of the blocks with a great book – that was the way it happened, wasn’t it? You saw it all the time. Philip Roth with Goodbye Columbus, Kate Atkinson with Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Jeffrey Eugenides with The Virgin Suicides. What didn’t occur to me was that by taking these uncanny instant success stories as my representative blueprints for authorship I was being just as myopic as people who look at that topsoil of heavily-promoted “buzz” titles in bookshops and treat them like they are the only books on the planet. This myopia was probably not helped when an assertive and seductive literary agent took me on and told me he thought he could comfortably get me a £40,000 advance for the novel I’d sent him a synopsis of. When it was revised and – thank fuck – reimagined as a memoir called Nice Jumper, he didn’t secure me anything close to that figure but he did get me an advance from a publishing megalith that, considering what I get paid for my books now and the fact a takeaway sandwich costs twice what it did then, seems flabbergastingly large. All of which meant that my fall to the ground was that much more gnarly when, one book later, the publishing megalith dropped me.
If there is one passage in Stet where Diana Athill says something more true to my experience of writing than any other, it is this: “Books worth reading don’t come from people saying to each other ‘What a good idea!’ They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it.” With hindsight, my career as an author now seems to me one of two halves: the Idea Books era and the Strong Feelings Books era, with a mini crossover era in between, where some strong feelings started to reshape what were initially Idea Books into something a bit more unique. The Idea Books era stretches from Nice Jumper in 2002 to my sixth book, Talk To The Tail, in 2011. The crossover era is the third and fourth of what I tend to think of as my “trying to pack as much as possible that isn’t about cats into a book about cats” books, The Good, The Bad And The Furry in 2013 – my first top ten Sunday Times bestseller – and Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind in 2015, where I get a bit looser and less obedient and start to bump against the ceiling of the box my publishers and I have constructed, breaking a skylight or two in the process. The Strong Feelings Books era run encompasses the five books I have crowdfunded: 21st-Century Yokel (2017), Help The Witch (2018), Ring The Hill (2019), Notebook (2020) and Villager (2022). I can look at the first couple of these and think, “I’d do some of that a bit differently now”, but they are books I feel completely proud of which are 100% true to me, from what’s inside them to their artwork and titles (if I try to use a pun on a well-known phrase again when naming a book, please shoot me).
This is not to say I didn’t have strong feelings about golf when I wrote Nice Jumper or 2007’s Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia, or about music when I wrote the two slightly iffy books sandwiched between them, or about cats when I wrote 2008’s Under The Paw. All those books have things I like in them. But they are all very packaged, very well-behaved, all very “also works as a journalist”, all very “Please sir, may I?” Genuflecting can be a genetic illness. What I see in that work now is the part of my personality that was very dogged about finding a way to write enjoyable and fulfilling books, problematically rubbing against the part of my personality that, due to generations of conditioning, assumed that well-educated posh people who presented their opinions about a subject with an air of total assurance automatically knew better about it than I did, even if the subject was things in my head that I actually felt like I would die if I did not at some point soon get onto the page. My granddad Ted used to salute in front of doctors; I used to not fully trust myself to write anything until I’d got permission to do it from a domineering upper middle-class person in or near Soho. Ideas were had, so many of them. Overlords were asked if the ideas were viable. Within the ideas that were judged viable, paragraphs, sometimes whole sequences of them, were written that I am still proud of. But I always made other people my boss, never myself. And because of that the stuff that burned and scratched to get out of me could never make its way out in complete and organic form. The burning and scratching built up. I’m now very grateful it had time to but back then it just made me sore and itchy.
“DO EVERYTHING THEY TELL YOU TO DO, OR YOU’LL BE BACK WORKING IN TESCO,” said Ted’s son Mick, my dad, numerous times during my early writing life: a statement that was 49% comedy and 51% counsel. I understand more about where it came from and why he said it with every passing year. It sunk in at a time when I was still a ductile entity, and, even when I was audibly questioning it, I abided by it more than I let on. But, to a person whose ultimate goal is to feed his soul as well as his stomach via art, it wasn’t necessarily the most fruitful advice. Also, he’d misremembered: I’d never actually worked in Tesco. I’d worked at William Lowe supermarket in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, just before it was purchased by Tesco, and where my boss, whose name has now slipped my mind, but who was almost certainly called Karen or Margaret or Julie, but definitely wasn’t known as Peg if she was called Margaret, appeared to view me as a polite and obedient employee but sometimes reprimanded me for scanning groceries too quickly. Who knows what could have happened if I’d stayed and risen into the managerial ranks of the William Lowe that would soon be Tesco? I am certain that, if I had, I’d have been earning more per year than I was in 2012, at the age of 37, as the experienced-ish author of half a dozen published books, who in a post-credit crunch landscape was taking a bit too much heed of the words of a few people – individuals I’d turned into far bigger bosses of me than Karen/Julie/Margaret-but-not-Peg ever had been – who regularly implied that, if I didn’t go on TV or make myself brandable very soon, I was kind of… done. “But can you write a book more like the books by these people, who aren’t you, but have proven themselves to be surefire money spinners?” seemed to have been the message a few years earlier. Now it had mutated to something more along the lines of, “Can you be a bit more famous or something, or just stop bothering us with your laughably abstract and romantic ambitions?”
Do I regret my diffidence, my artistic kowtowing? How can you feel something as elementary as regret, when there’s this extraordinary, ever-present ambivalence about what you’ve gone through? The phone call from your first agent informing you gravely just how pitifully few books you’ve sold on Amazon in the first few weeks since publication, the sales-driven editorial change you agreed to against your own gut instincts which now makes you feel slightly ill when you think about a book you worked hard on for over a year, the editor who confidently told you why your book would never work or have an audience (just under a year before, driven to completion partly by a quiet “fuck you” to that same editor in the last part of its creation, it became a bestseller and turned your career around) … it’s all part of what brought you to a threshold then nudged you across it. I see my early years in publishing now in a not totally dissimilar way to the way I see my time at secondary school. Yes, it’s a shame I didn’t go to the gentler, more reputable comprehensive that I could have gone to, but maybe if it hadn’t been so shit and I hadn’t fucked up quite so extensively I wouldn’t have been compelled to work so hard afterwards to get myself to a better place. After a while, you realise that without sinking so far down you wouldn’t have been able to root around and locate the source inside yourself where the most real and true stuff comes from (including, perhaps especially including, the real and true stuff that just happens to be totally made up, to serve a fictional narrative).
Diana Athill wrote that what she believed was the main difference between people with the ability to create and people who haven’t got that ability is that “the former react to experience directly and each in his own way, while the latter are less ready to trust their own responses and often prefer to make use of those generally agreed to be acceptable by their friends and their relations.” But it takes a while for most of us – in particular those of us who haven’t had that kind of self belief drilled into us by our schooling or family or social class – to learn to fully trust those responses. Doing so tends to be very different to just writing a bound, 80,000 word piece of semi-anarchic almost-journalism, which is almost certainly what I imagined writing a book might be like back when I was 23 and still pristine due to not yet having written any books. Although people will tell you otherwise, the central objective of most journalism is filling some space on a page, to a tight deadline, in a way that makes approximate sense. With exceptions, it doesn’t tend to require any particular depth of trust in your own responses to experiences. I definitely don’t – and possibly didn’t – trust the responses that, to pick one example of many, prompted me to give the sixth Primal Scream LP a five star review in the Guardian while very very pushed for time. One of the reasons reading novels took me to a much more rewarding and involving place than reading journalism was that the best novels I read were written by people with absolutely enormous and very hard-won trust in their own responses to experience, although I didn’t know that at the time, probably because of my lack of trust in my own response to experience.
My own Trusting My Own Responses books are also, uncoincidentally, my Strong Feelings books. Since I’ve started writing them I notice, going by undeniable evidence in my inbox, that the feelings they produce in readers are stronger, too. Some people don’t like them as much and would prefer that I went back to writing inferior books but that is totally cool, because I’m not writing books for those people. These lovely, strongly felt and often extremely well-written messages are, after the fact of just how much more transporting the creative process has become for me, the thing that has made writing books more rewarding than it ever has been. But when the messages arrive back to back with some stark and unmooring news about just how little your royalties are going to help you pay your rent, it can also illuminate some little injustices that had already been nagging at you: “Why,” you ask yourself, “when I know with every molecule of my being that this book is better than a book I wrote a few years ago that sold more, and most people who have taken the time to properly read it clearly know that too, does the greater picture not reflect this in some way?” But then I remember that because of my naturally optimistic outlook I’ve somehow again become lulled into imagining I live in a creative world where justice exists in anything more than haphazard dollops, like those that might catapult out from a cauldron overseen by a wholly unhinged person wielding a big fuck off ladle.
Stet takes place in a publishing era that it’s easy to romanticise from the modern day: bigger advances, fewer competing mediums, no social media as distraction or promotional necessity, largely editorially-motivated – as opposed to marketing-motivated – outlook. But what it tells you is that the problems and frustrations of publishing in 2022 are for the most part just digitally, capitalistically magnified versions of problems and frustrations that have existed for an extremely long time. What you realise is that the publishing of books has always been a struggle, and probably always will be, in some way, and deferred gratification has always been one of its central themes. Mordecai Richler, one of the authors on the André Deutsch roster Athill talks mostly fondly of working with, hammered away for three decades before fully finding his comic voice with 1989’s The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz and waited until four years prior to his death to write his best novel, 1997’s Barney’s Version: a book I picked up and fondled a lot when I was 23 and intended to read as I sensed it would help me become a novelist but didn’t in fact read until earlier this year, when, to my slight disbelief, I finally was one. Directly prior to publishing her most celebrated book, Wide Sargasso Sea – which, despite being less than 200 pages long, took her five years longer to write than she’d initially assured Athill it would – Jean Rhys was already in her 70s and living in a terraced bungalow, only one of whose rooms she could afford to heat, in an isolated mid Devon village amongst suspicious, tiny-minded neighbours who thought her an actual witch. I’m still in my 40s, just purchased enough oil and wood to heat my bungalow until the end of January using the fees I received from voluntary subscriptions taken out for this website and the proceeds from selling some of my record collection, and, despite not inconsiderable effort on my part, nobody in the isolated mid Cornish village where I live has yet accused me of practicing the mystical arts – at least not to my face. Also, it seems that I am going to be permitted to write another book without anyone trying to coax me to make it worse so it potentially sells more or putting a shite cover on it so it has more chance of making it onto the shelves of William Lowe or, as it is better known these days, Tesco. Life could certainly be significantly more dire.
Villager, the novel I finally published earlier this year, via Unbound, was my thirteenth book. My workaholic default setting is constant lingering irritation towards myself for not writing more books, but I suppose thirteen is quite a lot: more than some of my favourite authors wrote in a lifetime. When you’ve experienced as many publication days as I have, you realise that it’s not going to be a day when anything catches fire, despite what you once anticipated. Maybe you will check your Amazon ranking, speak to the innocent representative of a vast corporate entity about an erroneously sent invoice, go out and buy some curtain hooks, treat yourself to the more expensive muesli you usually consider too decadent, check out some 19th century architectural ephemera a friend tipped you off about, then come home and have a drink or two with the person closest to you. What more can you realistically expect? Effectively nobody has read the sodding thing yet. As Villager became one, then two, then three months old, more of those strongly felt, powerfully-written reader responses began to arrive: perhaps even more strongly felt than those I’d received after the publication of my other four crowdfunded books. Yet, concurrently, a despondency set in. A royalty statement had arrived, and – even with my knowledge of how tough things are out there right now – the paltry nature of it had been a shock… might, in fact, have put me in some serious difficulty, if I was a person who had zero savings and was without the benefit of the additional income that comes from kind people supporting the increasingly insane mass of writing on this website. The precise reasons for the paltriness are too complex and tedious to go into here but the equation of the paltriness plus the vast and time-consuming and often very creative work online I’d put in raising money for the funding of Villager, plus the huge mental and emotional effort it had taken to write it, plus my exhaustion from both of those things, plus the evidence in front of me every day on the internet that, however much people loved it and spread the word about it, it would always be losing out to books with a bigger corporate heft behind them, left me in a slightly defeated state of mind with one sentence, one wish, going repeatedly around my head. The sentence felt like a mantra, and in the middle of this year, I thought it a million times: “I wish I could quit writing and spend more time on my writing instead.” I fantasised about comprehensively fucking off, working even harder on a book, an improvement on Villager, finishing it, not telling anyone about it, then leaving it vacuum-sealed in a cave. I saw the cave as being in mid Wales – I am not sure why. “THERE – THAT WILL SHOW THEM, WHOEVER THEY ARE.” All of my feelings were valid, and still are, but they poured forth from an additional truth, as well the aforementioned equation: I needed to cut myself some slack.
A feature of going the extra mile or 25 with an artistic vision, setting yourself more challenges, pushing yourself that much further, tiring yourself out that much more, is that when it doesn’t quite lead to what the most romantic part of your brain hoped it might, the sense of anticlimax knocks you off balance with greater force. Despite what the evidence of publishing twelve previous books had shown me, with hindsight I think part of myself maybe did think something might catch fire when Villager was published: not a whole house, or even an attic, but perhaps at least a box of vintage hats that were being stored in the same attic. The part of me hoping that was perhaps a remnant of the part of me that used to scan the shopping too fast on the checkout in Ilkeston Soon-To-Be-Tesco. But I chose a different route, not just when I quit the checkout, but when I quit that other checkout of combining journalism with writing limiting books for publishers whose main goal was a brief explosion of short term sales. In 2015 I made one of the best decisions of my career and quit writing for mainstream media outlets. Over the following 18 months, I wrote the first of my crowdfunded books in precisely my own way, opting to do that instead of knocking it into the more predictable and marketable shape that I was advised to, to potentially suit the needs of a traditional publisher of nature writing, which I genuinely believe would have made it a less authentic and enjoyable piece of work, for me and my readers. When I did those things, I made a full commitment, and that was not to worry too much about the short term, or about what the wider reading public might want. Instead, I would concentrate on another aim: to write the kind of books someone might pull from a higgledy-piggledy pile in a secondhand shop 63 years after my death and say, “This looks fucking weird. I think I will buy it for Joan.” I have to live with that decision now, whatever the future might bring, but I believe the upsides of it outweigh the frustrations.
This is not a simple story, and I suspect it will continue to fail to be one. It’s not as simple as a story of having my ambitions thwarted by my own deference and sales-obsessed, misunderstanding publishers. It’s not just the story of a sales team deciding to stick a photo of a kitten in a Converse trainer on a book that contained neither a kitten nor a Converse trainer (Talk To The Tail, original paperback version: look it up on Amazon, if you want to see how bad it is, then maybe use the purchase of one of my later books as a chance to support a small independent bookshop), in the hope of selling it to a particular kind of larger audience who almost certainly wouldn’t enjoy what was inside it. It’s also a story that contains the brilliant Tristan Jones, formerly of Random House, with his beautiful handwriting, who taught me vital – albeit at the time quite upsetting – lessons about being more of a remorseless bastard to myself during the editing process; it’s a story that contains the lovely Albert De Petrillo who, while editing a very limited, very journalistic, very “sort of ok” early book by me called The Lost Tribes Of Pop, talked to me for many hours about the ambitious, character-driven literary fiction we both loved and never for a second made me feel that to one day write something as involving and fulfilling and layered as it was beyond me; it’s a story that contains Mathew Clayton, my current publisher at Unbound, who instantly, instinctively comprehended the tangled and subtle and weird energy I was aiming for with Villager and, thanks to one sensitive, eagle-eyed suggestion – an excision that somewhere in my narrative-addled brain I’d already known was necessary, without quite admitting it to myself – turned it into a better book, one without an uneven chapter that would have undoubtedly niggled me until my dying day. Editing is a subtle behind the scenes art form and to be very good at it is probably to be resigned to a life of being undervalued. There are many – Martin Fletcher, Angela Herlihy, Doug Young – whose early generous words, perhaps sometimes too generous, stuck in my head and helped me persevere during hard times. For all of the publishing industry’s flaws, it has one major thing going for it: it consists of a large number of people who were motivated to find their jobs because of their deep and abiding love of words. These are for the most part good people, full of strong coffee and sage advice.
Mine is not, either, a story quite as simple as ‘Nottinghamshire Idiot Who Scraped a BTEC And A Handful Of Crap GCSEs Tries To Run Before He Can Walk, Puts Out Some Books That Maybe Should Have Been Left In A Drawer, Prior To Finally Working Out What Books He Truly Wants To Write’. As a naturally impatient person, I’ve managed some remarkable acts of patience in my life. One is grasping that my early failed attempts to write half-decent fiction were doomed attempts and not trying harder to get them published. Then, after that, waiting a bit longer, and then a bit longer after that. Part of becoming a person with more trust in his response to experience was knowing that, when I broke away from traditional publishing six years ago, it was still not time to write that novel I’d always wanted to write, however much I yearned to be immersed in the process of it, and even though I knew not doing so would produce more itching and hotness. The following year, I almost did it, but instead dipped my toe in the salty waters of fiction with a collection of short stories, and then the following two years I still somehow managed to find it within me to sit almost still, like a salivating but well-trained dog, and write two further non-fiction books. I say this like I was practicing some kind of exemplary restraint but I am not that measured or clever; it was in fact all the doing of that phantom limb of mine that has grown from years and years of writing and does exactly what it needs to do, without me having a hell of a lot of say in the matter. Halting the inexorable motion of the limb is no longer an option and, if I try to, I just get sad. The limb, which seemed to complete its major growth around 2016, but no doubt has grown and will continue to grow in some other more nuanced ways, does what it wants, so quitting is not an option. The limb would continue to do its work, even if the fate of that work was merely to end up vacuum-sealed in a cave for many years until Joan’s friend stumbled across it, covered it in used wrapping paper and gave it to her a week late as a 59th birthday present.
What is it about the contents of my house that ever makes me believe, for a second, that I will ever be anything more than a niche or cult concern as a writer? My shelves are full of books and records that a relatively small number of people have loved and most people have ignored. I take responsibility for where I am. My current predicament is my own doing, more than it is anyone else’s: it was ushered on by being influenced by these musicians and writers and by making various choices damaging to my own chances of a different kind of career I did not want. If I looked back through my emails of a few years ago, how many turned down opportunities to go on TV, to do something in the public eye, would I find? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s definitely a figure that someone motivated by antithetical goals to mine might view as “self-sabotaging”. I just want to write, and read, and learn, and improve, and walk, and this choice I made, quite a while ago, to be more independent and stubborn in my approach seems the best way to achieve these things. But it’s not easy. It means the stuff “around” writing books can sometimes seem an even bigger job than the writing itself which, as anyone who writes books knows, is job enough. You can’t avoid seeing a distorted of version yourself fed back to you through the prism of social media by the people who are addicted to it and consume the universe solely via it. You have to fight the algorithm, try to outwit it. You sometimes pick up people who are – bafflingly – very interested in you but not interested in your books: the precise opposite to what you are aiming for. You get deflated, burnt-out periods when you wish you could just vanish to that non-existent cave in Cwmystwyth forever and write. You dream about the time you will be able to at least have the luxury of stepping away for longer chunks of time. You get the satisfaction of your work gradually reaching its intended audience but have to watch and deal with the extra admin as it travels on a thorny journey past its unintended one to get there. All of this happens to most authors nowadays but the process can be amplified, when you are with a crowdfunding publisher. There’s also a stigma and a lingering industry snobbery, despite the many excellent and acclaimed books that the crowdfunding publisher has published (“It’s crowdfunded, so can it really be one of the proper books?”). But I’m very used to dealing with stigma and snobbery (“I heard he wrote some books with cats on the covers a few years ago so surely his others can’t be all that good or proper”). My publishers, Unbound, are not perfect, but every day I give thanks for what publishing in this way, with their help, has done for me: the phenomenal, precious creative freedom it has given me. If they did not exist, where would I be? Probably somewhere in a hot and itchy room, being instructed to write a book that was slightly like a successful book by someone else.
When I was growing up, one of my family’s favourite words was “bighead”. “Don’t be a bighead” was one of the first bits of life advice I remember receiving. “Look at him, he’s a right bighead.” “Watch out for bigheads.” The use of the word – and the accompanying warning – says a lot about who my parents are and who their parents were before them, and their parents before that, and on and on, probably, for centuries and centuries, until you finally reach the members of my ancestry who sometimes thought about trying to invent a new kind of axe or spearhead but worried it might make them seem a bit too full of themselves amongst their peers. Here’s an example: my mum’s art page, where she charges less than half of what she could, and probably should, charge for her work, because she doesn’t want to be a bighead. I’m glad to have been brought up like that, because of how it’s contributed to what I am as a social being, and because vigilant self-criticism is one of the most vital tools in any author’s bag. I can, however, see how that whole background of warnings about bigheadedry has made me get a bit in my own way sometimes. It probably got in the way in my early career as an author and it got in the way in those initial weeks after Villager’s publication, when part of me just wanted to slink away and let it sink or swim, all on its own, never speaking of or thinking about it again.
You know that by talking about your book online, by reminding people about it, by highlighting positive reviews of it, you’re irritating some people. If you let yourself get too concerned about that, you can want to sweep yourself away into a dark corner. But those annoyed people, who would probably never read your book anyway, are not being forced to listen to you. They always have the choice to switch you off. And you are not there because of them. You are there because of the people you wrote the book for, aside from the main person you wrote the book for, who is yourself. By writing the book, especially in the case of Villager, you turned yourself inside out emotionally, smashed yourself into pieces, did the best you could, “KNOCKED YOUR FOOKIN’ PAN OUT” as my dad would put it, and because of that you want it to have the best opportunity possible of reaching an audience. And then there’s a greater, more significant issue here, which isn’t even about you any more but something much more important, something huge, which affects us all. If you are listening to those naysaying voices, those voices who tell you to shut up about your silly little book, who tell you that writers shouldn’t be paid for what they do because it’s not a proper job, who assume various details about what got you where you are and tell you what you do is nothing but self-indulgence, who tell you – on the same day, in my case, that a reader informed you that one of your books was the first thing her best friend insisted on having with her in the hospital when she was terminally ill – that writing is a purely egotistical business which has never helped anyone but the writer, that art has no purpose in our increasingly hollow world… if you are wilting at the sound of the braindead megaphone that these voices speak through, you really are letting the true Dark Side win. You are a tacit accomplice to those who think art should slink quietly away and let the technocapitalist dictators take over, who think that art cannot change the world for the better, even when history has offered endless evidence to the contrary. By letting them win you are no longer on the side of what Diana Athill called “The 30 percent”: the part of the universe that offsets the 70 percent of it that is brutish, which, being contrastingly made up of intellect, is “able to leaven the mass just enough to keep us going”.
The weird niche way I go about publishing my weird niche books these days is based on a faith in the power of word of mouth: not just the word of mouth that persuades enough people to pledge towards a book’s funding to make it exist, but the more gradual kind that keeps bringing you new readers over the long haul. I’ve long gone past the point of caring whether my first six books make money (which is fortunate because they won’t), but I would like the latest seven, and especially the latest five, the Strong Feelings books, to continue to be read for the rest of my life. The build is slow but I do see it happening, and I’ve always been a fan of doing things the hard way. I also see that, as it makes its journey out there through the brambles, Villager seems to be reaching more readers now I’ve stopped giving a crud about the potential reactions of the people it was never for in the first place. It is of course no short term match for marketing budget, bookshop saturation, or media “buzz”, but maybe one day it will begin to make more of a difference, make me feel a bit more confident about continuing to do what I do up to or at least close to the point when I no longer exist, and hopefully without getting so comfortable in the process that I lose what drives me, or mutate into a bighead. I can’t help thinking here of the section of Stet where Athill discusses her time working with VS Naipaul: a talented writer she found funny and charming at first but who soon became insufferably self-important and, at times, cruel. It’s one of the best bits of the book and should probably be issued as part of a welcome pack distributed to all authors starting out: a cautionary tale about taking yourself too seriously. But I reckon I can say, without being VS Naipaul, or any other bighead, that I’m really glad so many people are having such a strong and positive reaction to Villager, it was extraordinarily satisfying to write, and I do think it’s a fucking good book: the best one I’ve written so far. Of course, you might disagree, and that’s your business if you do, but you’re wrong. Besides, I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for Joan.
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Villager is available here from Blackwells with free worldwide delivery. If you are in the UK, I also have a few first edition hardbacks here at home to sell for £16.99 cover price plus p&P, with a free print by my mum, Jo. Please email me via this link if you’d like to snap one up while they are around. Very happy to sign and dedicate them personally, too.