Two happenings in the last couple of days have added more chewy cuds to my present thoughts: the first, the delivery by Amazon of a book; the second, a talk by a writer in a bookshop.
I’d ordered on Saturday a friend’s just-published book. (Do as you would be done by – I can’t help it!). It was delivered on Sunday by Amazon. Isn’t it amazing: to want a book one day and have it in your hands the next, without leaving your house! How I appreciate the speed and ease. But then the thought kicks in as I watch the panting courier appear and disappear at a run. He’s driven by the need to earn as much as he possibly can in the hours he’s awake. He’s freelance, without any cover. Amazon take no responsibility. Should I be morally obliged not to use Amazon? Would it make any difference if I stopped using Amazon? Would I ever stop? No. I’m extremely glad that Amazon exists. Not just for the speedy delivery of books but because I’ve just taken advantage of their print-on-demand programme to publish three books.
The book that was delivered was produced in the same way. A friend, Susan Jordan, followed my lead and has published a few years’ worth of Blog with Amazon’s Createspace. Ever since we first met, I have understood the importance to Susan of writing; not just writing, but being a writer; of being a published writer. And that probably goes for everyone who writes.
This leads me to question myself once again: why do I write? I asked this question publicly when, years ago, I was interviewed by a Radio Devon reporter. I’d just had a novel published and the publisher’s distribution channels had failed in the south west. Writing a novel seemed pointless. The interview ended like this: “Well, Susan Barrett, you don’t know why you write and your book’s not available in the south west. Thank you.” I scraped myself up from the studio floor. But it did make a memorable anecdote.
Today, my answer is that I can’t help but write, in the same way as I can’t help but want to help other writers. Like the tale of the scorpion and the frog, it’s in my nature. Writers would have been the story-tellers in the caves of prehistory. Gather round the fire and I’ll begin. In any population, there will be a small proportion of people who want to entrall an audience with a story. It’s a fair barter. I’ll tell you a story. You’ll listen and you’ll clap. If there’s no clapping, then — does that mean it was a rotten story? This would have been the case in the cave-dwelling days but not now, in the 21st century. As I’ve said before, both good and bad books get turned down; both good and bad books get published.
Yesterday evening Salley Vickers was talking about her latest novel, ‘Cousins’, as part of Taunton Literary Festival organised by the Brendon Bookshop. We were there. I wanted to witness what it’s like nowadays for a novelist to sell her wares. I also wanted to give some copies of my three Createspace paperbacks for sale or return in the bookshop. I was very much aware of the difference between Salley and me; she, a writer with the backing of a mainstream publisher and me, a writer hoping to sell a few self-published books.
The big task for me over the last decades has been to accept non-acceptance. Writing novels and getting published had been so easy when I started. I didn’t have to do anything to sell my books; the publishers did everything. There were no literary festivals in my heyday. Perhaps that Radio Devon fiasco was a sign that things were changing. Since 1988 when Collins published ‘Stephen and Violet’, I have had nothing but rejections. It’s been almost impossible to keep faith in my own ability. Nobody is clapping in the cave!
Does that mean I write rotten stories? I have a loyal husband and enough good friends who have continued to enjoy what I write not to give up. Until yesterday evening, I was still harbouring the hope that maybe, perhaps, somehow, sometime, I’d regain my writerly perch, become known once again, reviewed and acknowledged. I listened to Salley talking with intelligence and charm about her novel. I listened to the questions from the audience and even asked one myself. And all the time I was curling up inside at the idea that I might want to put myself in that position, to have to talk about my writing, to read from a book I’d written – in order to sell how many? To have my ego stroked?
Say there were 45, or 50 at most, present. Say a quarter of the audience bought Salley’s book. Well, we know only a very few writers make a good living, let alone a fortune. To help the publisher sell books and to stay in favour with them, a writer has to tread the boards like the repertory actors of old, tramping from town to town. Certainly being a Name feeds the vanity – but there is something that makes me squeamish about the fawning process on both sides.
I came home after Salley’s talk, feeling elated. I’d made a decision. I do not have to do this! I’m so fortunate that I’m at the tail end of a career, and have enough money to live on. I do not have to sell my wares in this way. Most importantly, I’ve given up pandering to my ego. I don’t need people to clap!
Perhaps a little bit of clapping? I want some readers, I want some recognition, and some return on expenses. Like the Amazon couriers, we’re freelance and have been all our lives. So I’m still hoping to spread my net beyond my contact list. This morning I woke up with this nursery rhyme in my mind, and I think you’ll see its relevance.
This little pig went to market
This little pig stayed at home
This little pig had roast beef
This little pig had none
And this little pig went weeweewee all the way home.