By Alan Gilliland, UK novelist-illustrator-publisher
Reading of the death of Umberto Eco, I came across this quote that resonates with me:
“It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
To the former group I might add “some agents”?
At any rate, I find it strange that an agent’s response to one of my books (an historical Gothic ghost tale as it happens) was firstly that they didn’t get the ending. Secondly, I was told, I must spell out every aspect as a linear novel because I can’t expect people to actually have to work at figuring the story’s various threads before they come together at the end. Readers supposedly don’t want to be challenged but have all laid out on a platter.
Thirdly, the agent said that “authors seldom break out of their genre” – despite the fact that my first book was a children’s nonsense adventure, my second a Gothic tale, my third a YA ‘magical realism’ murder story, my fourth a plague tale, fifth a terrorist thriller, etc. (only one and two are published).
My orders were to stick that Gothic Horror Genre from then on to establish my “Brand”!
Thus was revealed the fact that publishing has become an exercise in corporate and individual “Branding” for ease of marketing and has little to do with the individual’s exercise of imagination in telling stories, whatever form those stories may take, in whatever “genre” branding agents choose to slot them after the fact.
Somehow I find this whole marketing/accountancy-led publishing milieu alien. When I read The Spire, I didn’t think as a reader: “Gosh, this isn’t in the same genre as Lord of the Flies – I can’t read this.” William Golding was a great story-teller. That was enough in itself to take me to the next book.
And what the hell is wrong with complexity? With offering readers the chance to think, to figure out, to be challenged?
In support of this view may I add a recent quote by Will Self (with the rider that in no way do I compare the quality of my work with that of that literary author): “The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.”
Though this appears to contradict Eco it carries the same frustration with the drive to dumb down, which Eco believes is not necessarily desired by readers themselves but imposed by publishers’ perceptions of readers’ desires, driven by mass-marketing of ‘brands’ to the lowest common denominator (B2LCD) to maximise revenue through delivering more-of-the-same to the highest number of people.
Fortunately, my Gothic tale has attracted some good responses (as well as bad). Here are some examples.
A gold-mining boss
1st. Tweet to @OnundTreefoot: “Just finished ‘The Flight of Birds’ – fantastic! it had me deferring the Times Crossword on the commute to London each morning.”
2nd. Review: “This is a truly astonishing book. The cleverly spun threads will draw you into a web of intrigue and mystery that will have you gripped throughout. If you enjoyed the Quincunx you will love this – I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
(He last year reached the finals of the Times crossword competition but was unable to attend due to his business commitments. He met me at the London Book Fair soon after that review and offered me £10,000 on the spot for a share in my business. I stupidly turned him down, thinking I was acquiring the agent mentioned. When I mentioned the agent’s remark that the ending was for him a “What the fxxk!” moment, he agreed that, for a few seconds the shock hit him also until he realised that the entire convoluted logic of the story led inexorably to this moment.)
“The story itself is hugely intriguing …. [Describes the tale]… Kate’s future lies in the past and terrible secrets and revelations come to the surface. Intrigue is the key here. I absolute loved the story. Alan has created a rich history filled with high drama through to delicate relationships and some truly shocking moments. Buy this book.”
“A book that’s sounds frankly weird. A girl goes back in time, whilst remaining in her current time and follows her family’s history back 400 years. This sounds all nonsense but in reality is one of the best books I have ever read. Readers of medieval whodunit novels (CJ Sansom lovers) will love this book. This is an author with great ideas, way beyond many others. He also could easily write separate books about many of the characters in this book.”
An 18-yr-old lady
“This is a book which fills your mind with wonder. The characters live on in your mind long after the last page has been turned and the story is clever, deserving applause for the gripping plots. This book is a book to read if you want to experience a beautiful piece of writing which will stay with you forever.”
Even a 14-yr-old (who reached the finals of a national poetry competition)
“I really, really enjoyed it. Okay, maybe it was a little bit gory in places (maybe a lot), but I thought that it was really clever and a really good read. It’s what I’m always looking for – a mystery, stuff from the past, betrayal, horrid stuff like that; but that’s just the sort of thing that is really very exciting. There is as much interest in the chapters set in the present day as there is in the tales from the past; I love it I love it I love it. Thaaaank you, Mr. Alan Howard!”
(Howard is my middle name, used here to avoid this macabre tale being accidentally picked up by those younger fans of my nonsense kids book, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Curd the Lion (and Us!) in the Land at the Back of Beyond.’ That book has sold 9,000 @ £15 in the UK and further 9,000 in China and South Korea so far.)
Now these are among what one might call, in America, “my kinder readers!”
Before I receive accusations of cynically plugging my book off the back of the death of a great writer, I must tell you that the book is currently out of print, so that I am not in a position to sell it. (It did sell over 3,000 @ £10 in the UK before my signings were unceremoniously curtailed by edict of the new MD of the Waterstones chain in the summer of 2012.)
My purpose in writing this is to relate my delight in finding that quote by Umberto Eco, reflecting my own frustrations.
If, after reading this, someone is intrigued enough to wish to read this story, The Flight of Birds, do please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bio: Alan Gilliland is the author-illustrator of The Amazing Adventures of Curd the Lion and Us! in the Land at the Back of Beyond, a children’s book. Under the name of Alan Howard, he has published The Flight of the Birds, a mix of a Gothic ghost tale, horror and thriller. Born 67 years ago in Malaysia and brought up on a rubber plantation, Alan won 19 awards during his 18 years as graphics editor of The Daily Telegraph. He publishes as Raven’s Quill, Ltd. and has also started a small children’s house, The Shabby Tattler Press. He also writes the Pencilnotes blog. Earlier this week, TeleRead published Alan’s thoughts on Kelly’s Efficiency Index.
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