In his 1961 essay ‘Writing American Fiction’, Philip Roth addresses the difficulty of being a writer in a world made fractured and baffling by various forms of new media. The author’s role as voice of dramatic truth is being challenged by the more immediate powers of pulp journalism and television. Describing the murder of a set of twins – Pattie and Babs Grimes – Roth analyses in detail the way the story of the girls’ untimely death is twisted and magnified by newspapers and television into a gaudy soap opera. He tells us that “the mother of the two girls wept herself right into the arms of a local newspaper lady, who apparently set up her typewriter on the Grimes’ front porch.” The murderer is caught, released, uses his new-found fame to launch a career as a jazz trumpeter. Then a newspaper launches a weekly contest “How Do You Think the Grimes Girls Were Murdered?” Finally the mother buys two parakeets which she names after her dead daughters. This story, and the Nixon/Kennedy televised debate shown that year (the first of its kind), inspire in Roth “professional envy”. He wishes he could have invented tales so dramatic and absurd.
Roth’s point here is that it is tough to write fiction in a world where fact is so outlandish, stretches credulity, is hyper-fictional. And that these new media are infinitely better able to transmit the essence of this world. Roth’s voice, petulant and bewildered, is that of an elderly headmistress who has lost control of the school dance. “…the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meagre imagination…”
I sense the same tone in authors faced with the array of new Internet media via which they are able to convey their words to the world: Twitter, blogging, Flash Fiction, nanowrimo… This rather ridiculous article from Nicholas Lezard nicely sums up the issue – writers worry that the value of their words is debased by the proliferation of (unpaid) methods by which they may be transmitted. It is the sound of the stable door being bolted when the horse is already Pedigree Chum. Writing is no longer a credible career – a point made depressingly clear in this piece by D.J. Taylor. But Taylor too blames the Internet, which has led to a situation where “the once-homogeneous entity known as “literary culture” has become horribly dispersed, blown out into cyberspace and colonised by bloggers and self-appointed savants who think their opinion of a book is just as good as the Sunday Times’s“. Whilst this article deals specifically with the life of the Man of Letters, it could just as well be applied to the writer of literary fiction.
Over 47,000 works of fiction were published in 2008. Of these novels, only a small handful made money for their publishers. Advances are plummeting and, with the advent of Kindle and other e-book platforms, the spectre of books going the way of CDs (collected by a small handful of obsessives, ripped for free by the multitude) is very real. An author should expect to earn around £1 for every copy of his or her book sold (after agent’s commission over hardcover and paperback). The average number of copies sold across those 47,000 books published? 1,600.* And this includes a number which sold 500,000 copies upwards (Khaled Hosseini x2, Linwood Barclay) and many which hit the 100,000 level: dizzy heights a first-timer couldn’t hope to achieve. According to the excellent Moonrat (who is admittedly writing about the US market), 7,000 copies sold of a début novel would constitute a success. The point I’m trying to make here is that as a first novelist who is also a young dad trying to support a family, it is highly likely that I will always have to do something other than write literary fiction in order to make a living.
In the end, after you get over the dream-cracking reality of it, the whole thing is rather liberating. Writing is no longer the toad work, and the Internet world is no longer a threat to your livlihood, but rather an arena for play, for honing your craft. There are sites like Everyday Genius which constantly stimulate, and writers like the brilliant Julian Gough who have made the Internet their own. I have thoroughly enjoyed my initial few months on Twitter, and find myself having to struggle to control the itch which compels me to check the thing every ten minutes when I should be writing. I have also enjoyed building this website and look forward to posting on this blog as the publication date of This Bleeding City approaches.
I’ll try to give a sense of what it’s like to have a first novel published in an age when literary fiction seems something of an anachronism. I’m so hugely excited about the whole thing: delighted at the thought of even the most mundane tasks that lie ahead (approving the proof, the cover, the author photo), was thrilled to see the first bound copy. My grandfather was published by Faber the year I was born – 1979. I have always idolised him and to step into his shoes at Faber – albeit with a very different work – feels very much like coming home. Apparently a successful blog should be under 1,000 words long, so I have already failed at the first attempt. I would have thought that my Twittering would have rendered me more concise. And Hemingway’s six-word heartbreaker that is the title of this piece should act as a warning to those who think that profundity and prolixity are necessarily linked. I think he would have got Twitter…
* All sales data from Nielsen Book Scan