Here’s to the Swinburne Pharisee

Flaming Caddy

As a brief glance at Amazon reveals, the world, its wife, their daughter, her mate Jenny and half the people you pass on the street are now “writers”. But literary authors aren’t self-publishing their books on Kindle. Quite the opposite. They have a swish sounding publisher. They write for the New Yorker or the Guardian. They’re overwhelmingly likely to have attended an elite university such as Oxford or Stamford. They have an MFA. It’s all indicative of one clear message: these people are smarter than you, so you should buy their book

Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world, the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture. Genre writers are mid-range consumer brands, with an equivalent status to Skoda, Argos and Primark. Stephen King is the Ford Mondeo of letters, the writer dads actually read while pretending they got past chapter three of Infinite Jest in their 20s.

Gert was a bit disappointed not to see, in this cavalcade of cars, the Swinburne Pharisee owned by Trish Monroe in Crane Mansions. Perhaps our preference for the Swinburne Pharisee over the Merc, Skoda  or Ford Mondeo explains our failure to land a publishing contract that would see us rolling in lucre and adulation. As Tim Parks explains, the brand is vital:

The difficulties of the writer who is not yet well established have been compounded in recent years by the decision on the part of most large publishers to allow their sales staff a say in which novels get published and which don’t. At a recent conference in Oxford–entitled Literary Activism–editor Philip Langeskov described how on hearing his pitch of a new novel, sales teams would invariably ask, “But what other book is it like?” Only when a novel could be presented as having a reassuring resemblance to something already commercially successful was it likely to overcome the sales staff veto.

The kicker is, of course, that once you have produced a successful book along the required lines, you’re under pressure to produce more of the same, as Parks says. We’re reminded of the librarian’s story of little old ladies who come in to return a book and ask for another one exactly the same.  It’s a problem for authors who want to do something a bit different with the second book, at least until they’re such big names that it just doesn’t matter anymore. And that can be a problem too:

Too much applause makes your pen quake, it can steer your pen in the wrong direction.

(Hasan Ali Toptaş, whose book Reckless we’ll shortly be reviewing.)

How nice it is to be part of a blogging community that reads everything from Adler to Zweig, the sublime to the ridiculous, the Mercedes to the Swinburne Pharisee.

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13 thoughts on “Here’s to the Swinburne Pharisee

  1. The world is changing, however, it never was easy to make it in the arts.
    I wrote a book once a mystery with an Atomic Energy back ground and it was reviewed by some big publisher in New York. This was when Three Mile Island happened. Talk about bad timing. I’ll stick with the music for now but I do have an idea for another novel. (I’ll keep that on the back burner.)

  2. What a surprising woman you are, Leslie, You’ve never even hinted that you had written a novel.Music and painting too…the good fairies were hanging round at your birth.

    1. I don’t think so. It’s the same sales argument as above, you want to know something’s bankable before you invest in it. I read a comment by Hannah Kent’s US publishers that they were disappointed in the sales of Burial Rites bc they had seen it as having strong commercial appeal. It certainly sold enough for them to make a profit, but that’s not enough.
      On a related topic, I just read on another blog advice about writing book rvs from someone who rvs for Amazon: “show how motivation/theme/goals connect to a vast swath of readers.” I’ll be looking out for that in your rvs next year.

      1. I was, sort of, pulling your leg, but I think both concerns boil down to $$ and what is perceived as the safer bet.
        As for the vast swath of readers… I miss the boat on that score. Tut .

  3. Never having seen a Swinburne Pharisee, I have to say I AM impressed.
    In my view an important difference between literary and genre fiction, broadly classified, remains the attention an author pays to language, and, through close attention to language, creates a distinctive voice. I don’t know enough about speculative fiction to make an informed comment, but sadly – I say sadly because I am a lover of detective fiction – too often the genre author is lazy and sloppy, or simply doesn’t care, when it comes to the actual words. Of course ‘literary’ writers can be lazy and sloppy too – I thought ‘Burial Rites’ was quite a sloppily written book – but I don’t think the problem is as widespread.

    1. I can see you in one of these, Dorothy, when your arm heals of course.

      I don’t know that the quality of the writing is really the issue. As you say, being classed as “literary” isn’t a guarantee of the quality of the writing. It’s more, as the first quote says, about the whole package you present, like a brand. Sales departments care about the brand, and once you’ve had some success as an author you can be a brand. It’s the beginning writers, good or bad, who run into the problem of being chosen more for what they write about, or who they are, than for any literary quality in their work.

        1. I had to look up Andrew Dice Clay. No, he’s much too complex. Bogans, also known as yobbos, are an extreme and noticeable form of the common man, the opposite of the Sensitive New Age Guy. (There are bogan women too). They like big loud cars. Those with lots of money like big bling.

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