Happy Clients, Grumpy Booksellers and Tough Choices

The news from this week: Mr Litlove delivered the bunny chair to its 18-month-old recipient, who was so pleased she squealed with delight and laughed and clapped her hands. He says he’s hoping to get that reaction from all his clients now. However, his bandsaw broke again and his router is so old that it won’t work unless it’s warm. This means he has to cuddle it in front of the fan heater before it will consent to start. I find this quite sweet on one level, but definitely not a long-term maintenance strategy. We’re also wrestling to get all the paperwork together in order to receive, finally, the endowment part of the endowment mortgage we had for a short time. It’s only a fraction of the value we were told it would be back in the 1990s but it requires us to produce endless reams of documentation. As it so happened, I had our marriage certificate on my desk in front of me, having needed it for a struggle to the death with my bank a while back. When Mr Litlove saw it there, he said that was not a good idea to have it outside of the filing cabinet, picked it up, carried it off, and has no recollection of what he subsequently did with it.

I finished a piece of writing for a collaborative art project I’m working on, which I’ll tell you about properly on another occasion. Suffice to say for now that it grew out of this interview and has been such a pleasure; I get to work with two artists whose art I find genuinely awe-inspiring. However, now that it’s done, I can turn my attention to a new project and I can’t decide what it should be. When my eyes were bad over Christmas, I got briefly fired up over an idea for another novel. But my enthusiasm has waned. The thing is, I’m a competent fiction writer, but I’ll never be a really good one. I’m much better at non-fiction, which is also where my heart lies. The issue has been managing the research needed with an hour at most of reading a day (if I have no screen time). All the possible books that grab my attention would need a LOT of research. But then, if I accept it will be a slow process, and work methodically, it’s surely not out of the question.

shaun bythellThis week I’ve been listening on audio book to Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller, which appears to have been generated out of the least amount of work possible for a book, but manages to be mundanely entertaining – or possibly entertainingly mundane, I’m not sure which. Shaun is the Jack Dee of the Scottish second-hand book trade, and as a story about bookshops, this is not exactly 84 Charing Cross Road, but more like the television sitcom, Black Books. Shaun is performing a grumpy, subversive, jaded bookseller, or else he has anger issues. My money’s on this being a bit of an act. However, he does have a hated Goliath in the form of Amazon, which comes in for a great deal of bashing over the course of the book, as he never tires of enumerating the ways in which the retail giant is destroying the little people. Of course, you could equally well say that secondhand bookshops screw over authors, kick the stuffing out of the indies who stock at full price, and ultimately undermine publishing which requires a certain level of revenue to keep issuing a decent range of books. But Shaun is not really a 360 degree man.

Instead, he tells us how many online orders they get every day (and how many do or don’t get fulfilled), he tells us about Nicky, his subversive employee who delights in Foodie Friday when she scavenges the Morrison skip for leftovers to bring in as treats. He tells us about his girlfriend, Anna, who is an American writer, and the shop cat, Captain, and the many buying trips he undertakes to assess private libraries that are for sale. He reserves large portions of the diary for telling us about the breath-takingly rude general public who abuse booksellers both in person and on the phone. And the highlight of the year is the Wigtown literary festival, which sounds a lot like the Hay-on-Wye version. The amount taken daily on the till appears at the end of each diary entry, and the last Saturday of the festival is the only day the shop breaks the £1,000 barrier. Throughout much of winter, the figure is more like £100 a day. He’s certainly right that keeping a secondhand bookshop afloat is a really tricky proposition.

As I say, there’s a routine banality to a lot of it that is somehow restful, and he manages to complain about customers in a way that is drily amusing. My favourite anecdote concerns the lady who came in saying that she knew her book club was reading Dracula this month, but she couldn’t remember what he’d written. What I found disappointing, though, was the lack of evident love for books. Shaun sometimes tells us what he’s reading, but hardly ever what he thought of it. When he makes a find in a private library, he’s concerned only for the financial aspect. When the Wigtown festival takes place, he definitely loves hobnobbing with the famous, but he certainly doesn’t say if he took the trouble to read anything by any of them.

But I write this as someone who wants more than anything to write about how wonderful and interesting books are, and for sure this is not a commercial approach. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this lately, and I have come to the conclusion that I’m niche, and that’s an end to it. I have never been popular, or even understood why the popular things are popular. So the stress involved in hunting agents and coming up with market-friendly ideas isn’t worth the bother. I’ve decided that my comfort zone is something I should stay in.

The book I ought to write is the book I’ve written half of already.  At first it was about crisis and creativity in the lives of authors, or the way some of the great books have been forged in the fire of terrible events. It’s sort of mutating into the obstacles that writers face over the course of their lives – terrible beginnings in life, bad relationships, motherhood for women artists, difficulty getting published, savaging by the critics and the vagaries of reputation – and how they are negotiated and turned into art. For each of these obstacles I seem to be writing two essays, one on a specific author, and one a more general discussion with lots of different anecdotes. All the specific essays are done, but I need to write the general ones.

But I’m tempted to start the reading for another book. I’ve sort of arbitrarily decided that childhood as we know it began in 1952. Well, it’s not SO arbitrary, more a combination of attachment theory coming into being, which made the mother the most important person in a child’s life, as well as the changes in the post-war world in class, that meant the end of domestic servants and the start of the nuclear family. I wanted to look at 1952 through the children’s literature being published then, to see what we encouraged children to dream and imagine, which says a lot about the world we lived in and the one we want to create. Basically, I’d get to write about all sorts of intriguing books – the Narnia Chronicles, the Moomins, Charlotte’s Web and The Borrowers, Enid Blyton and Dr Seuss, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical fiction, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, oh and lots more.

I should stop there, right? But then I think about the crisis and creativity book and wonder whether I should focus just on women writers and the way they have to negotiate their mothers in order to create. Would that make it a better, tighter book? But wouldn’t I be wasting a lot of research I’ve already done? And then I wonder whether I should try to find a project that’s more life-writing and that wouldn’t require as much research at all. I’ve been thinking about a memoir of CFS, written through my pantheon of all-time great writers, the ones who’ve helped and comforted me and given solidarity as only great literature can. And I’d love to write that book, but it would be difficult in other ways. Whatever I choose I’d be committing to for several years, so you can see why the decision is so hard.

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14 thoughts on “Happy Clients, Grumpy Booksellers and Tough Choices

  1. If this is a book you’d like to sell/publish in a traditional sense, I’d suggest imagining which of these ideas you can most viscerally see yourself pitching. And since nonfiction sells on outline, pitch, and opening sample chapters rather than on a full MS–you might have an opportunity there to let the market help you to decide which one to commit to.

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  2. Sounds like an interesting project you’re planning. I was saying to Isabel today that I wished I’d hunted out more of the classic audio books when they were young, to ensure that they read everything. My friend and I were both saying how we were waiting and waiting for our kids to “get it” where reading was concerned, but they never did – they weren’t into physically reading books as they said it hurt their eyes.

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  3. All of these ideas have commercial potential: I think Lucy Mangan will do very well with her memoir of reading as a child but your take on children’s literature would be from a different point of view; Olivia Laing did well with The Trip to Echo Spring looking at the connection between drinking and writing which suggests that creativity and crisis would interest readers, too, but a memoir of CFS would probably be the one that would most interest publishers. If I was choosing, I’d pick the one that would give me the most satisfaction.

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  4. Instinctive reaction: go for CFS and your pantheon of all-time great writers. You know both so well. But I haven’t a clue about what publishers might want (although I think they want passion) and my instinct tells me those are your real passions.

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  5. The thing is, if you have a fertile mind you’ll want to write lots of different books, possibly at the same time – which isn’t necessarily helpful….Like Angela, I know nowt about publishers but I think she’s right to suggest going for the thing that ignites your passion. I think your writing is likely to be better if your heart is in it! 🙂

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  6. Thank you all so much for your kind and thoughtful replies. I completely agree that I should go with the one that I feel most passionate about! Just about all of these ideas have been aired at one time or another to one agent or editor or another, and none have ever sparked any interest. I think that’s perhaps because I am awful at selling. I do have a tiny indie press that has said they would be happy to take any book of my essays, but they want to see the whole thing (of course they do) before making a decision. It’s a very small press and quite possibly more people would read them if I just posted to my blog! So I’m not sold on that route just yet. All I really want is something to keep me out of mischief and off the streets. I find I feel much better about life in general when I’m researching.

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  7. They all sound interesting. But if I had to vote for one it would be the one on CFS and all the writers who have inspired and comforted you. It’s a bit corny as a title but how about: The Chronic Fatigue Bookclub? I think if you have fun writing it it would also be therapeutic.

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    1. I’m trying to figure out a way to write it that WOULD be therapeutic, because obviously, that would be helpful! I’m a little afraid that thinking about CFS in detail and remembering all the bad years will be the opposite. But then sometimes getting things down on paper (or screen) can clear them out of the mind. I’m torn… but thinking about it!

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  8. I shall echo the other commenters and urge you to go with the book that pulls you the strongest. I’d read any or indeed all of them!

    I was writing my Bythell review as yours popped up. Apologies for appropriating one of your thoughts in that he never tells us what he actually thinks about the few books he says he reads. However, I remember going to a S/H bookshop in a neighbouring town, and for the man and his son who appeared to run it, it was definitely a business, not a labour of love – they were dealers in books. Bythell would appear to be somewhere in between a booklover and a dealer.

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    1. It was a case of great minds thinking alike, I think! Yes, I’m sure that even if you love books, running a business in them would force you to have a different approach and that alone would change your feelings over time.

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  9. I don’t think you should call it The Chronic Fatigue Bookclub because the point isn’t that your illness defines you, it’s that this is what has given/forced you to make the time to read in the way that you do. What you say about your reading will have broader appeal, and no one has to join a club (or look into one) to “get” it.

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  10. I would definitely have that reaction to a piece of Mr Litlove furniture!

    I often think the same when I write fiction or try to, which isn’t often. I’m more of a critic than an artist, not that that is probably a good thing.

    I’m excited to hear more about your collaborative art project. 🙂

    I really enjoyed Diary of a Bookseller, but I do agree there was something about it that lacked a love of reading. I wondered if that was to do with the diary format, which is short and day to day and because selling books might kill it a bit.

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