Following the Author’s Guild Debate between Joe Konrath and Matthew Yglesias against Scott Turow and Franklin Foer on how much of a friend Amazon was to writers this post would seem timely:
A Writer Redefines the Gulf. (Biographically)
Interview with somewhat dispirited author, Vivienne Tuffnell ( Author of The Bet, Square Peg, Accidental Emeralds, Strangers and Pilgrims, Away with the Fairies and The Wild Hunt and other short stories;)
This interview was stimulated by Vivienne Tuffnell’s recent posts. The Loss of the Joy expressed her recent (and perhaps current) despair and traced its origins to the act of publishing. Following the publishing betrayal by someone she believed would help, and through the necessity of shouldering all the marketing speak, as well as its underlying (and mostly unquestioned) precepts she seems to have reached a psychological ‘Road Closed Pending Repairs’ sign.
Deeper than Exhaustion: Defining what a free-for-all does to the ‘Original.’
It lies much deeper than exhaustion. The loss of belief she sums up as ‘the culture itself has been subtly damaged over the years so that commerce rather than creativity is the gold standard of what is of worth to us’
At my last count this post had had about 25 comments of empathy from fellow writers. Spurred by that huge response I suggested exploring the issues from the experiences of one individual, her hopes, beliefs and experiences, and disillusionment. What may be done?
Recovering Belief: Keeping Unorthodox Writers writing: How?
On the basis of what that indicates this interview was structured, if only to recover her memory of the joy she once had, and perhaps to harness the growing community of fellow writers dispirited by that ‘gold standard’ of commerce and the sense that if you are not commercially successful, you must be irrelevant (or conceited!) or unwilling to work, or to shout.
Viv, Can you recall what first stimulated your writing? The circumstances, but also the nature of the impulse? In short, why write? When did it begin?
Back in the late 60s and into the 70s my father travelled to America on numerous occasions for work. I have no idea how long he was away as time is very different for a small child, but his return was always accompanied by gifts of things that seemed alien and exciting. Britain as I grew up was not that far removed from rationing so America and all it contained seemed exotic and advanced. He usually brought back Superman comics (wish we’d kept them!) and he also discovered Star Trek before it arrived on British television. My brother and I used to play Superman games and one of the things about Clark Kent was that he was a journalist and he wrote. Dad foolishly allowed me to use his typewriter, and though at this stage I could neither read nor write, I used to bash away at the keys in the belief that somehow the story I had in my head would appear on the page. I think I saw that the power of words was as much a superpower as the power of flight.
My brother, who is three years older than me, was a writer by the time he started school. We’ve always had a difficult relationship but as a small child I worshipped him. So in some way it was inevitable that I too would write. I wrote some poetry at school and used to make up stories during play. I began writing what would now be termed fan fiction of my favourite sci-fi writer, Hugh Walters, and it turned into my first novel, begun when I was ten and finished when I was eleven. I destroyed it aged fourteen, setting fire to it in an upturned bin lid.
Did you believe in a unique vision or ‘take’ ‘mission’ or ‘belief’ that you wanted to convey. Can you define what that was?
At that time, no. As much as anything, I wanted to write what I wanted to read. By the time I was about fourteen I had resolved that I would be a writer. I asked a teacher I trusted to read a novel I’d written and after a few weeks, he asked to see me to talk to me about it. I won’t go into great detail but the talk we had changed me completely as a writer. He said, “I don’t see you as a writer of detective fiction or mysteries. You’re capable of something a lot more. There’s something else for you, but I don’t know what.”
While some might be offended about his dismissing of a whole genre in that way, I did and do see his point. The immediate effect of his words was for me to open up to exploring a greater variety of literature. Long term, it contributed to a growing feeling of having a kind of a destiny. I know it sounds corny but it did. The intervening years refined this feeling and though I fought hard to try and get books accepted by mainstream publishers, I was thwarted. I came very close to a contract several times and even had an agent. But then it always fell apart at the last. The decision to self publish came hard to me. I’d had definite ideas of who I was and I confess that like many, I had conflated the concept of self-publishing with that of the old model of vanity publishing.
Discovering Path and Purpose.
The blog itself came out of a six week sabbatical from my normal activities, late in 2008, where I withdrew from all my previous online activities and spent much time in thought, meditation and prayer. I needed a change in direction; I felt I’d got lost and had wandered away from my path. I’d been bashing my head against publishers’ walls and it was driving me to despair. So I began to blog and in doing so, a new world opened up. It was via someone I met through blogging that I first began the process of publishing a book. Though the book is good, the association didn’t end well. With hindsight, for me the realisation that I’d made a terrible mistake came when my associate said in passing about the book being ‘just a product’. This was entirely counter to all our previous conversations, and was the first pebble in a landslide that almost destroyed me.
Now, though, I can see that it liberated me. It woke me up to the forgotten feeling and belief in a form of destiny, and that what I wrote did not fit into being mere products. Yes, they are entertaining and can be read solely for that, but there is much more below the surface.
I get the impression from your blog that essentially you still believe that your original reasons remain intact. It is the gulf between expressing those truly and creatively and the erosion of the world that values books, or your kind of books. So essentially your despair lies in the so called ‘market’ and in its maelstrom the impossibility of finding readers. Is that the nub of it?
I think it’s a big part of it, for sure.
If it is, would it be fair to suggest that it is the loneliness of being unwilling to compromise? You don’t want to write for the prevailing market. I don’t either, in fact I would not know how to, so is the essence of this problem the very uniqueness you want to write about? Could you define why that is so difficult? Is it simply too much surrounding noise? Or something else?
Over Defined: Repetitive and Safe.
The prevailing market is founded on the very stale essence of what has already sold. It’s thrice chewed, and therefore pap. That’s not to say there’s nothing good or worth reading but the essence of much of it is tired and jaded. Some of the most famous and excellent authors have found that writing the same story over and over again is what their fans clamour for, and if they diverge from a tried and true formula there are howls of protest from readers and publishers alike. Many people who read do so for entertainment (which is fine) and what entertains is rarely challenging. But that awareness of the prevailing tastes seeps into the unconscious and sours the path to the soul-writing. Like beer siphoned through a dirty pipe, it taints the taste.
The world of indie publishing seems to believe it offers limitless liberty. I am far from sure that it is limitless. I get the impression that there are unspoken limits simply in the structures, languages, genres, categories, SEO searches, through which each book has to tunnel. Unless the work conforms to some, if not many, of these it will never surface. Do you have a view on these round holes? And how they exclude you?
The Metamorphoses of Self-publishing: From Grub to thick-skinned Grub?
At the very start, I think indie publishing did have almost endless scope. However, a process of morphic resonance (if I may use the term) took place and it all started to crystallise the old forms of publishing with the same strictures on format, genre, voice, and a focus on being “as good as traditional publishing” because things would need to be meticulously edited and typo-free. It has become bogged down in the details of aping the existing respectable face of publishing. It would take a gargantuan expenditure of energy now to liberate it from this set-in-stone format.
On a personal level, these round holes are inevitable. They’re there because they’re the iceberg-tips of what readers believe they want: more of the same they’ve already enjoyed. Vendors such as Amazon seek to provide a product for customers, so therefore they’ll use the evidence of what has already sold well. To some extent, I’ve not been entirely excluded because some of my work masquerades as close enough to various genres to past muster. This is solely accidental. I’ve never been able to write for a market or I’d probably have managed to break into the publishing business twenty years ago. I don’t believe in giving people what they want; I’d rather give them what they need. The two seldom combine.
Going back to the despair and the prevailing belief that only sales and readers validate the effort of writing ( one needs two hands to clap), and particularly after the first book has proved one can actually write and publish, it strikes me that you are not contented in simply writing a blog ( which clearly does attract a great many readers) so what more do you convey in the creative poetry and fiction that the blog cannot satisfy: ie the Heineken essence?
The Inner Life of a Story
The cathartic process of living a story cannot be done in miniature (unless you are in essence a highly-experienced Zen master or similar.) The process of reading a longer narrative has an effect that shorter works do not. In addition, the inner life of a story, of characters and events is a real thing, that exists in the non-physical realm. The process of accessing this realm is not done lightly or casually but you are led into it by narrative and held there by the power of that realm until released at story’s end.
On a tangential issue: Is that ‘essence’ the intimacy of being truly ‘seen’? I.e. Offering the reader the deepest ‘you’. If so, is the clamour of the competing market actually selling something different; stories for entertainment; plots for diversion; sci-fi for bright ideas and satire for criticism, rather than the perfume of a passing soul? Is the perceived ‘compromise’ of packaging the soul in ways that conform to broader entertainment, a betrayal? I don’t mean to suggest that the ‘soul’ needs to take the reins but that it may not find sex or violence, or the triumph of evil easy to live with. These all seem somewhere required.Does that contribute to the despair do you think?
The Perfume of a Passing Soul
Yes. One of the things my spiritual director sometimes used to say about my writing is that he caught my fragrance from a particular piece. That’s why negative reviews can be excruciating. I’ve not had many, but the first really excoriating one left me in bits (albeit briefly). You sit there whimpering,” but, but, but!” before you realise that you cannot remonstrate. It comes down to this: the reader did not connect and rejected the perfume of that passing soul. It is what it is.
People talk about writers needing to toughen up and grow a thicker skin. All I have done over the last ten years or so (probably a lifetime, really) is lose those skins that are a barrier to real feeling, and to become more sensitive to the passing fragrances around me. It’s why trying to read a book like American Psycho left me physically sick and unwell for days; I caught a stench of death that was like that of a battlefield in summer.
I felt the same about Chesil Beach, which was highly acclaimed. It seemed to take pleasure from eviscerating the characters he’d created; slowly, tortuously.
Ultimately, is writing the way in which we confront out existential loneliness, and are readers who ‘get’ and share that, now the substitutes for lovers? Is the internet an appropriate place in which to find ‘lovers’? Is that incongruity a contributing factor? The privacy of a book store never penetrated lies somewhere in this lament?
Chivalry and Chaste Love: What the Writer Reveals (and seeks)
I believe it is about unity of souls. In a normal life-time before the internet, most of us found very few people with whom we connected deeply and intimately. The impression I have gained is that people often married someone for the sake of marrying, rather than because they were true soul kin. The only time I can think of in history when this need for another form of deep intimacy was talked about was the time of the troubadours, where a form of chivalric and chaste love was very fashionable and was at the core of much art, poetry, mystical and philosophical writing. We live in an era of sexual freedom but we are like children in a sweetie shop and gorge until we sicken. The unity of souls is something entirely other than the unity of bodies, but it’s generally only in sexual relationships that this deep connection has happened.
If that is so, are the methods of self promotion, shouting, endless photographs et al a form of prostitution ‘au fond’. We want to be ‘seen’ for what we are, not what we appear to be? Or for who else is putting their name to our bandwagon?
To paraphrase Isobel, a character in several of my novels, if it is, it probably only counts as manual relief. It’s probably more akin to a profile on a dating site. You put up what you hope is a pleasing image and a tester of your fragrance when you are seeking a soul-mate. It’s a tiny beacon in the darkness. I gather a greater majority of people make new relationships through the internet, more than other methods of connecting with new flames. The kind of sites used varies. Some are intended solely for carnal, short-lived encounters; others are focused more on friendship with the possibility of a deeper relationship.
Finally. Do you have any ideas which might bridge this gulf between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘market’.
I do. But they’re essentially metaphysical at present rather than practical strategies that can easily be summed up in a short manifesto.
Thank you for the candour of this very clarifying Interview Viv. Much to think about for a great many writers, feeling as you do, to a greater or lesser extent. We all deal with it in different ways, some break and some bend. One of the ironies is that as self-published authors we took on the mountain to escape the gatekeepers, only to face different ones down the line! This was exposed in a recent debate about the role of Amazon held by the Author’s Guild in which the vested interests of the commercial giant persuaded the audience that (long-term) Amazon was ‘not the author’s friend’. The winner of that debate ended by addressing Amazon thus “You’re dealing with precious cargo. Don’t abuse your power. Be good stewards of word and thought.”
The full report of that debate can be found by clicking here
Viv’s Author Page on Amazon is here
Her Twitter handle is Vivienne Tuffnell (@guineapig66) on Twitter
Her very interesting blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking is here
Her Facebook Author Page is here
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