So, yesterday saw me heading into town for a literary day at the college of my dear friend, Rosy Thornton. A number of talks and workshops had been organized and we were heading up a session on online writing resources, which promised to be fun. It was my first chance to discuss the business of blogging and I’d been looking forward to it. It was a mucky sort of autumn day, wet and windy and warm, and the town was clogged with traffic. For some reason my usual route to the front car park was completely congested, so I ended up arriving late and sneaking in the back of the hall for the talk that preceded our session. When faced with closed double doors, it takes a bit of nerve to open them; one never knows whether a walk of shame across the front of the discussion panel will be the only pathway to a seat. But fortunately I found myself at the top and back of a horseshoe shaped auditorium and could unobtrusively take a seat in what would have been called the ‘gods’ in a theatre.
Down below was a panel of five representatives of the publishing industry, two agents, a first time author, an independent publisher (I think) and the chairman whose role I never did discern. This was an altogether cheerier panel than the one I saw at the Cambridge wordfest back in the spring, mostly due to the resilient good nature of the chairman, and the cool sense of one of the agents. When I arrived the ebook was up for discussion, although interestingly enough, no one had very much initially to say about it. Yes, ebooks were going to be a fixture but the take up of them so far had been very small, only a tiny percentage of the market. The first time author didn’t read ebooks, didn’t know anything about them but was vaguely glad they might exist. The agent provided what I felt was the best comment. She said that the physical object that is the book was still, and would remain, perennially popular as a gift and as a possession. Ebooks were great for educational purposes or for traveling, or for people who wanted to read five crime novels a week and throw them away afterwards. But for other situations the book would remain desirable and viable and in the future she could see that design would become increasingly important (think Persephone books, for instance). Now that seemed to me to be good common sense, as I do despair of a publishing industry that can only think in terms of either/or, thus condemning itself to miss the opportunities of diversification or lose loyal consumers of print. The agent had a very good quote that she thought summed up the book trade from Gramsci, who called for ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Gramsci saw a balance here between the spur to action and the belief in positive change, but I felt it summed up the pessimism of publishing houses, overthinking their situation in unproductive ways, coming up against the stubborn determination of the writing masses to get published regardless.
After this it was time for our session. We had about twenty attendees and they were a good crowd – quite lively and ready to speak out and contribute. A very mixed range of experience on the internet made it tricky to pitch our information – we might have been talking outer Mongolian for half of the audience whereas the other half were well versed and must have found the explanations dull. But we had a good discussion, I felt. Two things struck me particularly about the way the internet is viewed. The first was that people attribute it with far more power than I believe it yet possesses. One man asked whether I had had difficulty with my institution objecting to information I put in blog posts. Seeing as the whole idea of the blog is quite probably a complete irrelevance for the majority of lecturers and apparatchiks at my university, none of whom would be interested in what I had to say (beyond wishing maybe to dispute a point in a conceptual argument), I had to say no. One of the ex-students attending to help us out said afterwards that he had once written something truly mean about Heather Mills on one of his blog posts and wondered about it, but I said that her PR representatives were hardly likely to say, forget The Mirror, forget The News of the World, we’re suing that guy with the blog because what he wrote was well out of order. I understand that some man somewhere was sacked by his firm because of an anonymous and offensive blog post. But, for me, that’s primarily a story about the man and his relationship to his firm, the internet is just the incidental circumstance.
The other thing I noticed was an odd relationship in people’s minds between the internet and use of time. ‘I can’t be bothered to mess about on the internet looking for what I want,’ one man roundly declared. ‘I don’t have time for that. I want to be given the information I want from a reputable authority.’ Now, this is a common stance but not a truly logical one. At the best this presupposes time spent reading a book (if not several books), which of course one may be lucky enough to have in one’s possession, but which must probably be sought from a library, at a substantial cost of time and effort. The question of reputable authority is a highly vexed one, too, but for me authority has to be earned and is not simply given by the fact that the ‘expert’ is called a journalist or an author. There are plenty of deluded ones in both camps out there. And thus trustworthy information requires thought and effort regardless of the media in which it is sought. So this is, I think, a form of resistance against the difficulty of a new learning process. The same person also wanted to know how I could build up an audience, how I got people to link to my blog, this time with the implication of requiring instant gratification. ‘I have to write a decent post,’ I said ‘I have to build up a reputation, over time, the way that any author would and I think that’s just as it should be.’ It is strange how the perceived immediacy of the internet, which IS quick in certain aspects of its functioning, should be then imagined to grant instant celebrity (see back to question of power). As increasing numbers of people get online, the internet is good at reflecting back waves of feeling generated by both real and virtual events, but at the same time it shows how fickle and transient those feelings are. Groupmind can be provoked fast (otherwise known as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’) and I think we are a little bedazzled by that process at the moment. But there is no reason to suspect that what comes out of it has the staying power of wisdom.
Anyway, after this we swapped around and Rosy was going to talk about online writing communities, only she was having all kinds of trouble with the internet reception. Someone Rosy knew from her college (I imagine she was a fellow, although I do not know) came over to try and help us out (I say ‘us’, but you may imagine how much use I could be!). While this was going on, I picked up the discussion threads again, until I realized that both women at my side were whispering ‘Move! Move!’ It turned out that my chair leg was atop the internet cable and I had been innocently but firmly cutting off the signal. And there, ladies and gentlemen, we see the true fragility of the miracle that is technology. We were reconnected and everything progressed very smoothly from that point on. Rosy gave a wonderful talk about sites like WriteWords and Litopia and I must say I had no idea that they offered such a well-organised and useful resource for aspiring writers. Litopia is particularly intriguing as it is run by a literary agent who will give you a webcam critique of your publishing submission (you have to clear a few hurdles first, including posting over 100 comments on the site). Rosy played us part of one (it was over twenty minutes in all), showing a close up of a bearded, bespectacled man (one attendee cried out, ‘It’s Shylock!’) in his messy study, being rather charmingly impudent about a fantasy YA novel, but impeded somewhat by a speech defect. Afterwards, I told Rosy that I felt oddly motivated to get a critique off this man. ‘I really want to hear him tell me I have to let my information ‘theep thwoo the text’,’ I said. ‘Poor Pete!’ Rosy replied, laughing. ‘It was only because he had his new teeth. He doesn’t normally lisp.’
And that, folks, was more or less it. Except that we went to tea after our session where I met the master of the college, a highly particular genus of late blooming academic known as the Absolute Sweetie, who presented me with a bottle of wine for having helped out, which I wasn’t expecting at all. And I chatted with a very nice man who had attended our session and was writing a novel. And I attempted to chat to the agent who had impressed me on the panel earlier, only the second I asked which agency she was at she started to make great protesting noises about how few clients she took on. Even telling her I had an agent already did not seem to dispel the impression I had obviously created of being an unpublished marauder, a kind of intellectual would-be mugger. This ruined the good impression I had originally held of her. So all in all, I had a very good day, and running the session with Rosy was just a delight, but I have yet to revise my low opinion of the publishing industry. To my mind, it’s a problem of culture – business culture. If publishers changed their attitude, sorted their aesthetics out from their accountancy, gained some common sense, became proud of their product, believed in books, stopped nitpicking with their pessimistic intellects, realistically assessed the market and sold to people who actually enjoy reading rather than some vague and vast masses, then and only then we might be getting somewhere.