Not so much a bloggy week as a giggy one
A Secret Alchemy

Any spiders interested?

In Slipstreaming Eagleton and selling your soul I and some of the commenters were grumbling about the way that our non-fictional selves often seem more important to the book trade and to readers than what we write, which is ostensibly the raison d'être of the whole industry. (I'm reminded of the vast edifice of health clubs and Away strips and Chelsea-Football-Club-branded wine, which surrounds a postage stamp of centrally-heated grass in the middle of the stadium at Stamford Bridge.) Then Rosy Thornton had an excellent rant on Vulpes Libris about the way that book trade categories, and most particularly book covers, are 'the insidious perpetrator of stereotypical assumptions' about fiction, literature and their readers. And I was fascinated to hear how many publishers' publicists are astonished that Zoë Fairbairns, in journalist mode, insists on receiving a copy of an author's book before she'll do an interview with them, and if the book doesn't arrive in time for her to read it properly, she cancels the interview.*

It's partly, I think, that as writers we've spent a year, or two or three or ten, making sure that every word and scene and character is necessary to our novel, and it's then very difficult for us to bear the inevitable reductiveness involved in any kind of summary or sample. Even chosing what to put in a reading can be agonising, because of everything that we have to not read. All aspiring writers know that the worst thing (apart from the actual rejections, if any) about the whole process of trying to get published is writing the synopsis that must accompany your first-three-chapters. All published writers know that the worst rows writers ever have with their editors are over covers: even worse than the ones they have over the blurb, so I'm told. The cover, after all, is a single image, not even a few sentences, and it's the first thing a potential buyer sees, so its message must be absolutely direct and easily decoded.

In my PhD work I've been looking at how authors try to create the reader that their book needs, from Umberto Eco defending the first hundred pages of The Name of the Rose to Thomas Keneally 'Author's Note' to Schindler's Ark, asserting that he 'attempted to avoid all fiction, because fiction would debase the record.' At my editor's suggestion I made a late and very important change to the beginning of A Secret Alchemy, to make sure readers pick up straight away on the kind of book it is: to help them to tune in to the nature of my storytelling.

And it's occurred to me that, actually, everything about a book that's outside the main text is part of this business of tuning the reader in, creating the reader the book needs. How many Amazon reviews say things like, 'The blurb doesn't do this book justice,' or 'This wasn't what I was expecting'? In Knowledge of Angels, in an opposite proposition to Keneally's, Jill Paton Walsh's 'Author's Note' states that the novel 'is set on an island somewhat like Mallorca, but not Mallorca, at a time somewhat like 1450, but not 1450. A fiction is always, however obliquely, about the time and place in which it was written.' This isn't to save her the trouble or constraints of getting her history 'right' for this wonderful book, but to explain to the reader how to read the book. Even acknowledgements (which I grumbled about a while ago in No place for the muffins) make a difference to how a book is read, though the effect is different depending on whether they're at the beginning or the end of the book.

Authors' notes, typography, acknowledgments, covers, bindings, blurbs, puffs, reviews, authors' photographs, historical notes, even the price and the 'three-for-two' or 'signed by the author' sticker, make a difference to how we read a book: create a particular reader for it. There's a PhD in there somewhere: not mine, thank you, one's quite enough, but a Goldsmiths-type PhD nonetheless, spider-like and anti-reductive, with a foot in literature and another in design, a third in cultural analysis and several still spare for psychology, semiotics, reader-response theory, creative writing and going to the pub. I'd read it.


*I know myself that it's much easier to do interviews with a journalist who hasn't read the book. If they've read it they ask questions I have to think about, and my newly-thought-out answer may not come out clearly, or may not be the right 'angle', or may give away more than, later, I wish I had. Whereas if they haven't they all ask exactly the same questions, to which I have well-polished answers of appropriate lengths, rather as the child star Margaret O'Brien, asked to cry for the scene, apparently asked a director if he wanted the tears in her eyes, half-way down her cheeks, or running all the way.