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Wednesday, January 31, 2007


There's topical, and there's tasteless

Here's a story about how not to impress a publisher.

In July of 2005, I was working in a publishing company in West London, while living East. It was a long commute, but an enjoyable job, so I travelled in happily enough every day. The morning of July 7 was no different from any other: I left home very early, ahead of the main rush hour, and made it to work without incident. I was actually in a good mood.

It was a couple of hours later that some colleagues started saying there had been a bomb somewhere. There was no television, and we didn't know what was going on, but we all had internet access, and a few minutes was all it took for word to go round the building. Suddenly, we were all online. But there was almost no information. We knew some bombs had gone off, but we didn't know where. People were saying Liverpool Street, Russell Square, Kings Cross, but which lines, how many bombs, nobody knew. Neither did anyone else in London. The emergency services were trying to find out, but they just didn't know. It was too early.

I had a little pocket radio in my desk drawer that I listened to on my breaks. I plugged it in and tried to find something out, but it was the same story: reporters saying over and over, 'We're trying to find out, but all we know is there's a lot of people injured.' It was a small, shoddy radio that hopped channels every time I moved, and the announcers didn't know anything.

My boyfriend had been planning that day to go to Russell Square via Liverpool Street.

He wasn't answering the home phone. He wasn't answering his mobile either. I tried and tried, but I couldn't get through. I sent a text message: Bombs on tube. Can't reach you. Please call and let me know if you're alive. After that, all I could do was sit and listen to my crappy radio while the newscaster described the injured bodies he could see, people with dreadful burns and mangled limbs, muttering 'What are their names, what do they look like?' I sent e-mails to everyone I knew, with the same message: I'm okay, I'm not injured, are you? Who else have you heard from? Meanwhile, two people working in my company were unaccounted for. I sat between my radio and my phone, too frightened to think.

It turned out okay, in the end. The missing two people called in to say they were stuck in the middle of London and had a long walk ahead of them. Half an hour after I texted him, my boyfriend called. He'd left home later than I expected and hadn't heard the news until he'd reached the tube station to find it closed. He was fine, but I wasn't very coherent: I'd started crying when I saw the phone announce it was his number calling, and I couldn't say very much beyond, 'You're all right, you're all right.' He went home, I stayed at work, knowing we'd have to spend the night apart because my house was far too long a walk from my office.

Everyone in the office spent the day e-mailing, the police having told us to keep phone use to a minimum to leave the lines open. We knew we were the lucky ones.

By the afternoon, we'd all gathered ourselves enough to do some work. There wasn't much else to do. At around three o'clock, I was down in the post room dropping off a parcel when a fax came through. It was a pitch for a book.

The book's theme: what if terrorists attacked the London underground? It was a sex-filled, high-conspiracy action thriller.

And that, my friends, is the definition of bad timing.

Everyone in that building had had a frightening morning wondering if their loved ones were dead or alive. Everyone faced a disrupted night, most of them too far from home to get there; everyone was going to have to go back on the Tube once it fixed, knowing that, after all, it was possible to bomb it. And yet the person who sent in that fax - not even a proper proposal, but a fax - somehow seemed to think that we'd all leap on it, saying, 'Great, a money-making opportunity! This is topical and relevant! Lots of people are dying as we speak, now let's sell this baby!'

It didn't work, of course. The post-room boss showed it to me because I was there and he was a sociable man, not because I had any commissioning pull. It never reached anyone who might commission anything. He dumped it in straight in the bin, and I agreed with him: we were both contemptuous and disbelieving, and, underneath that, massively, profoundly offended. Hopeful authors often don't think of publishers as human beings, but this took the blood-soaked biscuit.

There's a place for topical, and it's not the same day dozens of people are killed. If you're writing something up-to-the-minute and controversial, good luck to you. But you have to remember that publishers are office workers who'll be just as affected by an attack on a city as everyone else. They'll have friends and family who may have been killed. They'll care about more things in the world than just selling books. If you want to sell a contemporary thriller, do think about the daily lives of the people you're pitching it to before you leap too quickly on an opportunity.

Bandwagon jumping is distasteful, but when you see how quickly non-fiction books are sometimes rushed out after a newsworthy incident, it's possible to understand how people might get the wrong idea.
Possibly, although I don't think that excuses it; not when the body count isn't even in yet. Wanting to get published doesn't excuse you from acting like a human being. It's the action of an imaginatively small person to only think of personal gain in the wake of a tragedy, and imaginatively small people aren't even good writers.

Disaster non-fiction is a different category, anyway; it hits the shelves fast because it's basically journalism with a high word count.

I can see why this person did it, but I don't think their reasons were good.
Yeah, I think most of us, had we been thinking about our Tube terrorism novel at all, would have reacted in the opposite way--that it was now sunk, having become far too sensitive a subject. Bit like when, after 9/11, there was talk about airbrushing the twin towers out of films and tv programmes. As if that would help.

I remember when the first book about Ian Huntley appeared last year, thinking unpleasant thoughts about those responsible for bringing it to the shelves. I didn't think, oh, it's non-fiction, that's okay. I thought, shame on them, cashing in on something so personal to the families of those girls. Imagine walking into ASDA and seeing your dead child's photo on the cover of a book reduced to £2.78.

As you say, understanding something shouldn't imply excusing it.
I think there's an important distinction between fiction and non-fiction here. Journalistic books are a vital part of our wilting democracy, and the problem here then divides into highbrow stuff we need to know (e.g. I don't think the middle-east can be properly discussed at anything less than book length), and the sensationalist stuff which is just News of the World sick-making gutter press trying to cash in with the minimum of effort.

Regarding fiction, I think Buffy is spot on (sorry, you don't mind if I call you Buffy, do you? :-)). No half-sane writer is going to take a tragedy like 7/7 and try to use it in fiction. Immediately a real-life tragedy like that occurs, it's time to dump anything remotely similar that you might have simmering away.

One thing I noticed after 9/11 was how the papers were full of "A horror not imagined by Hollywood's finest" and other such page-filling gumpf. It made me recall a film called "The Medusa Touch", starring Richard Burton (anyone else here old enough to remember that?!). Made in 1972, it's a horror where RB has the psychic power to cause disasters (it's actually quite scary - honest!), one of which is a passenger plane crashing into a tower block in central London. After 9/11 of course, no matter what scary horror films get thought up, they aren't going to include anything that.

I don't know if fiction should aim to be too topical - that's only a secondary objective after "being entertaining".
Topical is fine if an author can make it work; there's even a case to be made that fiction can help people work through the trauma of bad events, which is an entirely honourable thing. But if you're going to do that, you'd better be darn sure you're going to do it right. If your aim is honourable, then your work has to be honourable as well. And also good, otherwise it doesn't serve its purpose, and its purpose is what justifies writing about something so difficult. Fiction justifies its existence by quality, otherwise all you're doing is killing trees to no end, and an unjustified piece of commercial work written on the back of a tragedy is artistically unforgivable, never mind inhumane. Frankly, the world benefits more if you keep the trees and skip the book.
Incidentally, I'd like to say how gratified and impressed I am that everyone's remaining so civil over what's turning out to be an interesting controversy. Respect on y'all.
That's a good point about fiction helping people to work through bad events, but then it really has to be something special. For example, "The Quiet American" is spell-binding stuff, with Greene making so many points it dazzles you. On the other hand, while a film like "The Day After Tomorrow" does try to warn us about global warming and be entertaining, I just came out of the cinema thinking, "So, they really can do anything with computers." For me the film completely missed the target (notwithstanding that that might just be my fault!).

Does anyone have any examples of good fiction that can help/has helped people through the trauma of bad events?
That's a good enough question that it deserves its own post. See next installment...
I am not convinced that the person who wrote the pitch was actually sending it to cash in on the crisis. It seems to me to be an unfortunate coincidence, which you and the post room boss jumped (understandably in the situation) to the wrong conclusions about.

The book's theme: what if terrorists attacked the London underground? It was a sex-filled, high-conspiracy action thriller.

As previous commenters have said why would a writer think that sending an idea like this would be a good idea on the day of the bombing? Especially if its idea is "what if terrorists attacked..." this would be problematic simply because they had done so. The book would either have to reference this event (and so exist in a very different security climate to pre the attacks) or it would have to be about the attacks. At least so close to the event.

I seem to remember watching an action movie once with kurt russel and steven seagal about a terrorist hyjacking which had a very similar plot to the actual events of september the 11th. These things happen, the world is much more predictable than you think.

I certainly know that as a writer I hate i when my ideas become lessened through becoming reality.

Also I was personally very worried that day about my family and friends who might have been in the explosions (none of them were) but I don't think that that makes the events taboo. Writers can and should write about whatever they want to write about. Yes, they need to justify what they are writing. But what is justified to you might not be justified to me etc... And certainly non-fiction shouldn't get special treatment.

Also I don't really undestand the concept of honourableness in this context. What is dishonourable about writing about the july bombings? Or about anything else?

Personally the pitch doesn't sound like the sort of book that I like but it does sound like the sort of book that lots of people would like. Being pageturning for pageturnings sake and writing meaningless things is something that I would avoid but it these qualities seem to me to be actively sort out by publishers.

Maybe the person who wrote the pitch was just, as I suspect, caught out by coincidence. If they were then perhaps you should get the publishers to look them up.

As for a good book about the july bombings, I think there is a hell of a lot of material there for hundreds of good books, and so eventually there will probably be one or two. Out of the bad ones that will come of it we should try to avoid attacking them on their subject and their timing and instead keep to attacking the way they treat their subject and the quality of their writing.
No, they weren't caught out by coincidence. The pitch was sent by fax, not by mail. Fax is instantaneous. Hence, they can only have taken the decision to send it after the news of the bombings got out. From the pitch, it was clear that it was a book that had already been conceived prior to the bombings, not in response to them. Hence, the only conclusion was that the writer had decided that the deaths and injuries of the day were the perfect advertisement for their novel. You're right that reality had actually rendered their concept obsolete, but they simply hadn't realised that. That wasn't very bright of them, but not every hopeful writer is very bright.

It's not dishonourable to write about the bombings in itself, but it is dishonourable to try to cash in on them before the dust had even settled, which is what this writer was clearly doing. It's seeing a disaster as nothing but an opportunity for personal gain. Take my word for it; I'm the one who actually saw the pitch.

When I spoke of honourable writing, though, I really meant the duty to write something that's honest, fair and humane, that avoids cheap conclusions and tacky sensations, which is to say, writing well. All of which is contained in the book, rather than the pitch, but the pitch gave me no confidence in the writer's abilities. It was a bad pitch. Tacky sensationalism was high on the list. Which is not surprising. The writer showed extremely low empathy and poor judgement in trying to cash in on the human tragedy of the day, and without empathy and judgement, you can't write a good book.

All credit to you for trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I'm afraid in this case it really was just bad behaviour on the part of the writer. Publication is something that many people want, and when people want something, it sometimes leads them to act unreasonably. This was one of those cases.
That it was a fax still doesn't prove that it wasn't a coincidence.

But fair enough you're right it probably was (and you did see the fax after all).

If it was a deliberate attempt to use the bombings as a lever to get publishers to look at the book then I think feeling sorry for the person who sent it seems sensible. They are clearly not very bright.

The motivation for using tragedy for personal gain in this way is still something that I think, as writers, we should be able to sympathize with. Perhaps we would have drawn the line way before this point, perhaps our conscience wrestles with our urge to use the world as material, with our urge to get our words out to others, with the frustration of not being published, etc... but it is not hard to understand people who are not strong enough to be like that.

It is so hard to get your writing published that it makes sense that people will do anything, take any chance that comes to them.

I think being judgmental and moralistic about all this stuff seems pointless. The person who sent the fax was powerless. It is when governments/the media/etc... use events for their own ends that we should be outraged. Not when individuals attempt to do so in a way that is bound to failure. And yet we so often find the very small and easy to understand crimes horrific and ignore the larger ones.
'It is so hard to get your writing published that it makes sense that people will do anything, take any chance that comes to them.'

That's the point. You have to draw a line, and some people are way over it. I published this post not to make a personal attack on the individual who sent the fax (who you'll notice I've kept anonymous) but as an illustration to hopeful writers that 'doing anything' can sometimes be counter-productive. Publishers see desperation every day, and there are different methods of dealing with it; this was a bad method, and stands as an example people may learn from.

I'm simply pointing out a fact: if you want a publisher to judge favourably, acting like a jackass is not a wise start. It's not as bad as bombing civilians, but it's still not good.

And in any case, 'doing anything' doesn't even help. Nothing gets you published but writing a book that people enjoy reading. These 'do anything' shortcuts don't work.

Do we have a duty as writers to sympathise? Perhaps. But we as writers, to my mind, have a greater duty: to be reasonable, ethical people - the same duty every human being has. We owe allegiance to human decency before we owe loyalty to other writers, and if someone reneges on a human obligation to act decent, and crosses the line, I think it's fair to point out that the line was there. Otherwise we're defending people purely because they happen to want something we also want, no matter how they behave, which can lead to bad places.

I'm more in favour of writers setting high standards of behaviour and encouraging each other to live up to them. That's got to be better for the common good.

(And I'm definitely not in favour of illegal wars, torture, lying to the general public or other such evils. But this isn't a political blog, it's a writing-publishing blog. If you want one that does both, try http://www.nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/. I say this as a friendly recommendation, not as a veiled 'push off', though I realise it's hard to convey that with type; :-) you're entirely welcome to stick around and disagree as much as you like!)

I think that this blog is clearly being political quite frequently. It puts forward a clear political standpoint. From my POV the personal is the political and someone who is advocating writers duty to be reasonable, ethical people is a very definite political and moral stance.

I don't think I entirely agree with it, or rather I think that I do agree with it but that we have very different definitions of what constitutes being a reasonable ethical person.

I also think that we clearly have very different opinions about getting published.

I think sometimes the "doing anything" approach works and sometimes it doesn't. I am sure there are many people it has worked for. Certainly across other art forms, such as getting a record deal or getting a comedy show out using stunts and desperate acts have had a good success rate.

I work in a library, it is very clear to me that quality of work has little to do with getting published. I like that you make the definition "writing something that people enjoy reading" that is very refreshing because it is ambiguous.

And its true to an extent, to make some sort of living from writing you have to have a product that is enjoyed by enough people to support that living.

However I think that many books that would be enjoyed by people never get published and so don't have the opportunity and similarly books get published that very few people enjoy and they sink with hardly a trace.

Not to mention the power that good advertising or bad advertising blah blah blah can have on a book reaching the relevant people who would enjoy it.

I really object to the lie writers are told and that they tell each other:

"write something good and it will get published"

Well, recorded history has proved that this rule doesn't always apply to within the authors life time.

But I am pretty sure that that rule just doesn't apply.

I know from reading my friends work (and listening to their songs and seeing their plays) that quality work that people enjoy is a pretty common thing. I have also read so much published crap (well to be fair never all the way through).

Ultimately art is subjective (which is not to say that I don't have critical standards of my own.) Because it is subjective it has hardly any rules. The parameters that encompass books that people enjoy reading are so vast.

It is not surprising that given all that many books will fail where they might, with different luck, have succeeded, and that some books which in other circumstances would have failed, have succeeded.

It's not enough to be a good/accessible writer, you have to also be a lucky one.

And I guess I treated you a little harshly with my comments on you because I saw a lucky one attacking an unlucky one, and using morality that I don't adhere to to justify it.

Your blog is interesting though, so I will be coming back here to disagree with you some more.

Sorry! :-)
A few points re 'a lucky one attacking an unlucky one':

- I know I'm lucky to be published, but I don't think that removes my right to say anything about other people because they aren't published. That would cut me off from pretty much the whole of humanity.

- This particular fax came in in July 2005. I wasn't even published then.

- If I talk about unwise behaviour in unpublished authors, it's by way of giving advice that might hopefully help my beloved blog readers get published themselves. In so doing, I may occasionally give negative examples in order to show bad methods in action, but this is with a view to showing what doesn't work so people can focus their energies on what does. I'm trying to be helpful, not vindictive.

- See today's post for a discussion of luck vs good books.
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