What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
W H Davies (‘Leisure’)
I am not someone one would generally think to call an optimist. Introverted, melancholic individuals are not generally prone to expressing an overly positive view of life even if, on the whole, they hold one. Even the most introverted and melancholic individual will, however, most likely, fall in love at some time during their life and at that that time—if only at that time—they get a whiff of what optimists must feel every day. It doesn’t matter how hopeless their situation is, how unrequited their love is, hope is like one of those gremlins that only needs a sip of water after midnight to turn into a monster willing to tear your life to pieces.
They say that beauty is the eye of the beholder and the fact is that most people who behold Angelina Jolie think she is beautiful—drop-dead gorgeous. They really don’t have to argue their case. They elbow the guy sitting next to them and say, “What do you think about that then?” to which he replies, “Yeah, I know.” Nothing more needs to be said. They know. But Angelina Jolie is not who we usually think about when we use that expression. We usually have in mind some plain Jane or whatever the male equivalent is. “What does she see in him?” some woman wonders. “I don’t know,” another responds, “I guess she must see something.” And the same goes for our shy guy who has just seen this (if only in his eyes) perfect beauty walk into his life. That something, that je ne sais quoi, is something that probably the man himself can’t explain. All he’ll know is that it’s unimaginable to him that every bloke in the room doesn’t feel the same way as he does and he better act quickly or his opportunity will slip through his fingers, so he suppresses his shyness, takes a deep breath and goes for it.
The poets of old likened love to a madness and they weren’t far wrong. But they were talking about romantic love just as I was in my opening paragraphs. As we learned, though, in a recent article there are many different kinds of love. You’ve written a book—congratulations!—it took you years, your poured your heart and soul into it, took your time, revised, edited, proofread, proofread again—no flies on you—and it’s just about as perfect a thing as you’ve ever read. It comes back from the printer and you hold it in your hands and tears well up in your eyes: you have never seen such a beautiful thing in your life.
And then nobody buys the ruddy thing.
Why? Why not? Can’t they see? Don’t they know? Don’t they get it? Why don’t they get it? Well, the fact is that they’re all looking at Angelina Jolie—or at least the literary equivalent. Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel sold 34 million copies, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls sold 30 million, Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds also sold 30 million and The Da Vinci Code sold a whopping great 80 million. I look at those books and I don’t get it. I don’t see what those people saw in those books. But then I’m not really that attracted to Angelina Jolie. It’s not that she’s out of my league—which she is—but I tend to go for what I’m simply going to call non-traditional beauty. And the same goes for the books that excite me, the books where I want to elbow the guy next to me and say, “Hey have you read such-and-such?” only to hear him respond, “Who?”
I went to a mental health practitioner a while back and at one point during one of my sessions I happened to use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ and was asked to explain myself. You see, I don’t get that. I really don’t get that. I wanted to rush home and grab The Trial and Metamorphosis, dash back and thrust them into her hands: “Stop what you’re doing. Cancel all the rest of your appointments and just read these. You will thank me.” It’s like someone saying, “The Beatles?” At least that’s how I feel, although Kafka’s a bit more Lou Reed than Paul McCartney. (What do you mean, “Who’s Lou Reed?” Don’t get me started.)
You see you can’t share a girl—okay, you can, but that would be just plain weird—but you can share a book. That’s what I love about books. Everyone can get their own pristine copy that no one has thumbed through or turned the corners of the pages down in or scribbled obscenities in the margins of. A book is a beautiful thing. My book is a beautiful thing. It is. It is, it is, it is, it is, it is. Is. Beautiful. And she’s not out of your league, you won’t be out of pocket if you buy her or even over your head when you read her. She’s a nice book and just the right length. Perfect.
Why can’t you see what I see?
A book is a product. I think a lot of authors forget that. It’s one of thousands of other products. Once you start thinking about it as such then it’s easier to start looking at it objectively. I’m not big on brands personally. I’m just as likely to buy Tesco’s own as I am to buy Birds Eye; cost is my primary motivator. That said I’m well aware that a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is no Fiat Punto but is it worth the money if all you want is a little runabout to take you down to the shops and back?
People read books for all sorts of reasons. But before they even get that far they have to choose a book and the first thing that an author has to realise is this: No one wants to read your shit. This doesn’t mean what you’ve written is shit. I’m thinking more in the ‘muck and brass’ mentality. People approach your work with a negative attitude. Their minds are in the off position. They want to be turned on. They want to be wined and dined. They don’t want to jump in between the covers with any ol’ author.
So how do they decide? They have to rely on advertising. And that’s a very bad place to start because advertisers lie. We have come to accept that as a fact of life. Newspapers lie. Politicians lie. Advertisers lie. This is the world we live in. And that’s a great big turn off. I’ve written a book. It’s a great book. And you say, “Says you.” And I go, “Well, read these reviews,” and you go, “These are just your friends. Besides didn’t you just review their books? Why should we believe anything they say?” And I go, “Er.”
That line about no one wanting to read our shit comes from an article by Steve Pressfield called The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned. Here it is in context:
Nobody–not even your dog or your mother–has the slightest interest in your commercial for Rice Krispies or Delco batteries or Preparation H. Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchoupitoulas.
It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.
Nobody wants to read your shit.
There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.
They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/work of art/business, no matter how worthy or how much you love it.
He then goes on to talk about how to make your product more enticing and we’ve all seen what advertisers do to try and sex-up products.
The reason I started writing this article was because I’ve been spending quite a bit of time of late on a number of Facebook groups in the company of a lot of new authors who have decided to go down the independent publishing route and I’ve been quite bowled over by their enthusiasm. Actually that’s not really true. As the introverted and melancholic individual of the opening paragraph I’ve actually found their enthusiasm a bit wearing. They all love their books so much. Which I get. I do. I really do. But not being anything remotely like the effusive type some of these people are (or feel they need to be seen to be) I have to admit to feeling totally overwhelmed and, as such, left all but one group. I know that all writers are readers but all I could see here were writers selling to other writers, reviewing each other’s books and trying to create a buzz but only among a very small community: five hundred people promoting five hundred plus books to the same five hundred people all of whom are running around like headless chickens trying to promote their own stuff and none of whom have the time to read everything on their to-read piles.
I watched a comedian over the Christmas period. He was one of those quick-fire comics—bam! bam! bam!—and he was very funny as you would expect (from the Tommy Cooper / Ken Dodd school of joke-telling) but I noticed after the gig was finished I couldn’t remember a single joke. Not one. After thinking about it for a while one came back to me—My dog has no dictionary. How does he spell ‘terrible’?—but that was it. And that’s how I feel about the Internet. All these jokers, one after another, with big smiles on their faces, trying to get me excited about their particular thing, be it a poem, a review, an article, a photo, a link, a story, an inspiring quote or a bit of trivia, or the latest thrilling instalment in an ongoing series of ebooks about vampire unicorns. I showed my wife the entries in my feedreader this morning and she said, “That’s too much.” That wasn’t even a fraction of the posts I subscribe to (247 at the moment) and all she was seeing was what had come in since I cleared out the folder before going to bed.
I used to think you couldn’t get too much of a good thing but you can:
Camden worker dies after falling into 8-foot-deep vat of chocolate
Wednesday July 08, 2009, 4:07 PM
CAMDEN -- A city man died today after falling into an eight-foot deep vat of chocolate at a factory in Camden.
Vincent Smith II, 29, was standing on a nine foot high platform at Cocoa Services loading solid chocolate into a melting vat when he fell into the vat about 10:30 a.m., according to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
A co-worker immediately hit an emergency shutoff switch and two others tried to pull Smith out, according to Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk.
However, Smith was hit by an agitator, a large paddle-like piece of machinery in the vat used to mix the solid chocolate as it melts, Laughlin said.
Smith suffered fatal injuries from the blow. Firefighters removed Smith from the vat. He was declared dead at the scene.
And, of course, plenty of people have died in vats of wine and whisky. And even tomato sauce apparently.
I remember people in the past talking about avoiding the rush hour. Okay they were on about the rush hour traffic but actually when I used to drive to work that was one of the calmest times in my day. There was just me in a car—if the bugger saw fit to start in the morning—wending my way along the highways and byways listening to the music of my choice—assuming the tape deck didn’t chew up the tape—and the rest of the time, well, those were the rush hours. I used to literally run around the office to try and get things done in time. It’s no wonder I had a breakdown.
The thing is now I’m starting to get those same feelings again and I see that I’m not alone. There are a lot of you out there who somehow—I’m sure it wasn’t part of the grand plan—have suddenly realised that you’re drowning in chocolate, metaphorically speaking: glutinous blogs, gooey websites, gummy e-zines. The Internet is great, it really is, but then so is chocolate in moderation so the doctors tell us. A few months ago I posted an article on Seamus Heaney after which I ordered his Selected Poems which duly arrived and is sitting on the table next to me which is where it has sat since the day I took it out of its padded envelope. And this is a book I want to read. It’s not a book that I’ve agreed to review because I find it hard to turn down a free book. No, it’s a book that I’m genuinely interested in and I’ve not read it. My daughter bought Philip Larkin’s two novels … you know, I dread to think how long ago it was she bought me them … and they’re sitting in the middle of my to-read shelf and have done since my birthday or Xmas, whichever event they were gifted me on.
I like to think I’m an empathetic kind of guy. But here’s the thing: to be truly empathetic you need to know what the other person is going though and, let’s face it, most of us can only imagine what the rest of us are going through; it takes time to get to know someone. I imagine some of you work, some of you have families, many of you have physical limitations or mental problems, some of you likely have money worries or cars that won’t start in the mornings or spouses that don’t open up or maybe you’ve lost your job and are afraid you’re going to lose your home or the car that won’t start or the spouse who won’t talk and here I am asking you to sit down and pay attention to l’il ol’ me for two and a half thousand words as if anything I had to say really, really mattered in the grand scheme of things. And I realise—if Google Analytics is to be believed—that a great many of you will have given up well before this point which is a shame because those are the people I probably owe the biggest apology to for being so damnably long-winded.
But if you have got this far, here is your reward: I am sorry. Truly I am. I wish I could write little five hundred word long posts in nice short sentences with no big words surrounded by plenty of white space and I wish I wrote books you’d want to sit on the beach and get lost in. But I’m not that kind of guy. But what I’m mostly sorry about is that you and I live in a world where none of us have the time to get to know each other properly, to be able to be truly empathetic to the needs of our peers. I am the centre of my universe, as you are of yours. And the thing about parallel universes is that they never meet even though they appear as if they do in the distant future.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a couple of hours since I last cleared out Google Reader and I’ve another twenty-three … nope, sorry, there’s another one … twenty-four entries to read. One of them might be yours and if I only scan it and don’t comment, well, try and understand.