All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2014
Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

Picked up a bad book? Think of it as a good one.

It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start.

On the other hand, a lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you enjoy being those things, when you pick up a book from the front tables, or gaze at the 48-sheet cross-track poster, or read the reviews? You may relish your own or others' gloomy declarations of the death of the novel, of the triumph of the up-their-own-arse lit'ry types, of the attack of the barbarians at the gates, of the pixel-poisoning of the common reader.

But such declarations don't help much when it comes to you finding readers for your work. So, when you're struggling to coordinate your writing self, the publishing industry, and your potential readers, you're much more likely to get a sense of how it might all fit if you start from the assumption that there are good reasons for things being as they are. 

In other words, when you encounter a published book which you think is bad - whether that means incomprehensibly up-its-own-arse, or crudely build and stuffed with clichés, or too long or too short or too silly or too stupid - instead of being scornful, outraged or depressed that it got published, ask yourself:

  • what the writer was trying to do, and where and why they've succeeded in doing it (which is, not coincidentally, the start of John Updike's rules for reviewers).
  • why a commercial organisation with perhaps centuries of experience in matching readers to books has decided that this book will sell, and sell enough to make money.
  • what this particular combination of good-and-saleable consists of.

Not that "good" is a simple concept, in the context of writing. I explored what we might mean by "good prose" here, but the same question applies at the wider scale: do we mean good as in fit-for-purpose or good for that kind of book, or good on some absolute scale of aesthetic merit? My phrase "good-and-saleable" is an attempt to articulate the industry's sense that the two are separate but related, and the fact that to ignore the saleable bit is to head swiftly for the bankruptcy courts.

Similarly, when you encounter a book that others say is "hyped", and which certainly seems to be everywhere, ask yourself:

  • why so many reviewers might honestly say it's a fantastic book.
  • what pleasures it delivers that so many readers are talking about it.
  • why a commercial organisation thought that lots of readers would love it, if the organisation spent lots of time and trouble bringing it to their attention.

When you hear of another writer getting an excellent deal or lots of support from their publisher, ask yourself:

  • why a publisher thinks this is good-and-saleable enough that they're prepared to gamble that money and effort (and publishing is, first and last, a gamble).
  • again, what pleasures it delivers to readers - including readers in other countries and languages, since a really good deal is almost always built on the prospect of selling lots of foreign and translation rights.

When you encounter someone who doesn't read fiction - or even books at all - but loves other forms of narrative such as the role-playing kind of computer game, or film, ask yourself:

  • what they get from those other forms that they don't get from fiction and non-fiction.
  • what that means for what you write. A move towards what film or television, or non-fiction, does so well? Or a move away from that, towards the things that only prose narrative can do?

When you encounter an author behaving like an arse - shouting on social media without listening to and talking with others, being over-the-top assertive at an event, being grumpy, odiously self-satisfied, or merely drunk on a platform - ask yourself:

  • if they're deeply introverted and hating every minute of being on show.
  • if they've misinterpreted how social media work.
  • if they're out of contract, five publishers have just rejected their MS, and six the idea-and-synopsis of the next one, their confidence is in bits, and they're over-compensating for feeling like a failure.
  • whether they are an arse - and if so, why their writing is nonetheless good-and-saleable enough that commercial organisations are willing to put up with them.

When you encounter a self-publisher who is earning something like some of a living at it, ask yourself how much of that is

  • working hard at creating the right mix of good-and-saleable for their kind of reader, over and over again.
  • what mix that might be.
  • how they reach their kind of reader and draw them in.
  • canny use in promotions of their relationship to their readers.

When you consider J K Rowling,

  • try to imagine what difficulties and damage that kind of success would inflict on your writerly self.

And if you really, really don't have enough imagination to do this last one, then consider the possibility that you shouldn't be writing fiction at all, since our fundamental skill is being able to imagine what other people's lives are from the inside. And that necessary act of imagination - of trying to walk a mile in their shoes - includes the shoes of other writers and other readers, and preferably as they walk into a big bookshop, or a library, and survey what's on offer.

It's not that "I wrote the book I wanted to read" isn't an honourable driver for a writer. So, too, is "I read Book X and thought 'I can do better than that'." But whether you're trying to get your bonkbuster thriller or your poetry collection published, in the end you're much more likely to hit that good-and-saleable mark if you look at what good-and-saleable books might be doing right, than if you spend energy huffing and puffing about what they do wrong.