Jason Pinter is running a terrific series over at his blog about the future of publishing, inviting contributions from anyone involved in the publishing industry in answer to this question: “What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?”
Jason’s received some interesting and even provocative responses, although I have one caveat – most of the answers are critical of the publishers and the way they go about their business. Silly advances for silly books; anachronistic marketing; a failure to adapt to the latest technology; in short, most people complain that publishing companies are clinging to an outmoded business model.
This may all be true, and the Good Lord knows that I’ve had my fair share of disappointing experiences with publishers, as most writers tend to have; but is there an element of mote-and-beam going on here? In other words, no one writer has said that the one thing they’d do to change book publishing for the better is write better books. For all the hand-wringing about publishers’ inability to incorporate the interweb into their marketing model, how many writers have incorporated the interweb into their writing? How many writers have thought to themselves, for example, about the sea-change in other forms of popular art – movies, TV and music – and audience appetite for a blend of reality and fiction?
There’s a generation of potential readers coming through for whom the Fourth Wall doesn’t exist. Last night, for example, I watched the ‘Family Guy’ episode in which Peter ‘outs’ Luke Perry, with the character of Luke Perry voiced by Luke Perry – although Lois refers to the character as ‘Dylan’, his character in Beverly Hills 90120.
On Wednesday I watched the documentary ‘Anvil!’, the story of how an aging metal band from Canada are still trying to make it in their fifties. As a movie, or even a mockumentary, it would have been very funny in the ‘Spinal Tap’ mode; as a documentary, a real take on the rock ‘n’ roll dream, it was simultaneously soul-destroying and inspirational.
Next Thursday, I’ll be getting along to see ‘Notorious’, a biopic of the Notorious B.I.G., who – regardless of your opinion of gangsta rap – made art of his life, of experiences that are possibly fictionalised but certainly rooted in an authentic, relevant reality.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book that left me hollowed out and yet bursting to make something new, the way ‘Anvil!’ did. Or, for that matter, a book that makes me laugh like ‘Family Guy’ does because – bonkers as it is, and with no respect for the boundary between truth or fiction – it taps into the experience of our utterly confused cultural narrative.
This morning, on the web, in the space of an hour, I read a short story, took on board the responses to Jason Pinter’s question, checked last night’s football scores, watched a book trailer and two music videos, downloaded the latest Anthony and the Johnsons album, and watched an extended trailer for the ‘Notorious’ movie.
Can, or should, that kind of disjointed cultural mish-mash influence my own writing later on, when I grab a quiet couple of hours? Not the specific elements; but the jump-around nature of it, and the blend of reality and fiction?
Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of movies, reviewing them for a living, and read a lot of books, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief when confronted with a story I know is pure fiction, regardless of how good it is. For that matter, just look at the Oscar noms for ‘Best Picture’ – Frost/Nixon, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire are all, to a greater or lesser extent, examples of the collision between fiction and reality.
I’m currently working on a story in which the name of one of the main characters, Billy, is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, which is the last book I read, when I re-read it last May, to really suck out my guts and make me think about life, the universe and writing (I subsequently read ARMAGEDDON, but it’s not Vonnegut’s finest moment). Billy, my Billy, is actually a character from a novel I’d written about five years ago, who last May turned up in my back garden wanting to know why he’d been forgotten, and condemned to the limbo of the unpublished ghosts. The result was a book called A GONZO NOIR, which is currently under consideration with a U.S. publisher, although I’m not optimistic about its chances; nonetheless, I’ve started a new story, in which Billy returns, telling me about this guy he’s met on Crete, Sebastian, who claims to have been involved in a Nazi war crime, but who has been left in the limbo of an unfinished manuscript after the untimely death of the author, who may or may not have been writing a novel based on a true story. Can I help Sebastian finish the story and get him out of limbo?
Whether anyone will want to read that story is a moot point. And I’m not claiming that the notion of meta-fiction is so new and fresh that, to come back to Jason Pinter’s question, it’s going to change the industry – Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Flann O’Brien, Italo Calvino and, going a long way back, Laurence Sterne, are all favourites of mine.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that if there’s problems with the publishing industry, it extends to all elements of the industry, and that includes, vitally, the writers. Maybe, just maybe, a central issue for the future is that the audience, and certainly the generations coming through, won’t be content with straightforward fiction, in the way that even the best animated movies from Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney will, for adults, always be just kids’ movies.
For what it’s worth, the latest kids’ movie from Disney is ‘Bolt’, and it’s about a dog with super-powers who realises that his super-powers only exist on TV, because he’s an actor. When Disney are throwing ‘The Truman Show’ loops at kids, you just know the conventional novel is finished.
Roll it there, Collette ...
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.