So I'm drinking prosecco and admiring the cover of Karen Macleod's Betty Trask-winning novel In Search of the Missing Eyelash at one of my local independent bookshops, the small but perfectly formed and this evening packed-out Review, and thinking that I'd never been to a book launch until shortly before The Mathematics of Love came out. Karen gives good reading - she's a performance artist in another life, when she's not being long-haul cabin crew for British Airways - and I'm now I'm looking forward to getting into the book. I've even (almost) forgiven her for being young enough to be eligible for the Betty Trask in the first place. (I've never understood age limits on writing competitions. It's not the young who need encouraging with prizes, a bit of starving-in-a-garret never did them any harm. It's the older ones with dependents and commitments who need help to make the brave, frightening jump.)
It's not just book launches, either, that are new to me. I'd never been to a reading till I fell among the poets at the University of Glamorgan, never taken any notice of literary prizes, and I'd never been to a literary festival till Headline sent me as far as possible round the world - to Christchurch, NZ, and then Brisbane - to be an author at one. Mind you, I still don't read fiction reviews, so no change there, at least. But, fundamentally I'm not sure I really knew these worlds existed, and it never occurred to me to try to enter them: the worlds I entered were the ones on the page. And the public side of being in that world as an author was disconcerting, not least because I'd never taken much notice of other authors being public in these ways. There had never been anyone I didn't know personally who was yet aware of my existence, still less goodness knows how many thousands of people round the world who now have a right to say whatever they think of my writing. I didn't have anything to say on a blog, nothing I thought publicly interesting enough to post on a website. And now this is... well, not my whole world, because there's a whole other world which involves nametapes and homework and telling people it's bedtime. But it's part of it: part of what I do and even who I am. When did that happen?
I suppose it crept up on me, and I suspect it creeps up on many writers. No doubt there are ambitious young things who set their sights from the beginning on joining the odd mixture of art and commerce which is the literary trade, and who (try to) write the books that will get them there. Most of us read and read and read and one day sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote, and one day long after that had their agent ringing up to say, 'We've had an offer,' and about nine months later, 'Would you like me to explain how a trade dinner works?'
Which bits of that world are art, and which bits are commerce, isn't as straightforward as you'd think, either. Doing readings and talking to readers about your work is an extension - even an amplification - of the chance you've been given to say what you want to say, and hear that it's heard; art and craft in action, in other words. But readings sell books and tickets, or bookshops and venues wouldn't do them, and who's asked to read and what they read reflects that brute reality. While in the opposite corner, designing the cover is all about even more brutal questions of marketing, positioning, demographics and sales. But a book and its cover are also aesthetic objects in their own right, deeply entwined with the art that's made in the reader's head, from the black marks on the page. The two functions of a book - to speak, and to sell - are not indistinguishable, but they are inextricable.