Friday, 9 October 2020

PUBLISHING, PLAGUE, AND PLAYING YOUR HAND

My struggle to make everyone even more miserable than they were already.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: Utopias are all alike; every Dystopia is dystopian in its own way. A happy future is desirable but vague, while the horrors we envisage tend to be more specific. However, most of us would probably prefer to be optimistic about the future, despite all the evidence, and our ideas about what will happen are influenced by what we want. When I was younger, I expected the future to have more robot butlers and jet packs, and less fascism and plague, but here we are. And as we survey the landscape that surrounds us, the question for writers and publishers is what to do about it. 
 
I wasn’t thinking about plague when I began writing a dystopian novel, around three years ago. I was more focused on fascism, or what I then saw, naively, as creeping authoritarianism, before it stopped creeping and broke into a sprint. That was just one of the things that changed while I was writing the book. Another was that its tone became darker. The problem I’ve always had with most dystopian fiction is that it’s not very funny. A certain bleakness comes with the territory, I admit, but that’s no reason to be gloomy. My original idea was to write something that I described as “Blade Runner, but the investigator is Inspector Clouseau.” That’s not quite how it turned out. There’s still comedy in the novel, but there’s a noticeable difference between the reaction of British readers and everyone else. The writer and critic Maxim Jakubowski gave it “Top marks for originality and subversive humour,” whereas an otherwise very positive review in Publishers Weekly noted that, “Though billed as darkly comic, there’s little humor in evidence.” At first, I wondered if this reflected cliches about British and American attitudes to comedy. But then I found myself thinking about what people are currently going through on different sides of the Atlantic. If our historical moment has a distinctly dystopian flavour, I think Americans are tasting a more bitter version of it.
 
Late last summer, the date for my novel’s publication was set by the publisher, Eye & Lightning Books, for early May 2020. Then the pandemic arrived, and the world changed. But it continued to turn, and the business of life, or some semblance of it, goes on, including the business of publishing. There are enough challenges facing a publisher at the best of times, especially a small, independent one in a market dominated by big corporate players, and now their resources are being tested severely. My publisher and I discussed the options, and found enough reasons to go ahead, and my book appeared as planned. It was the middle of lockdown, and we waited to see what would happen. 
 
Was it a good idea to publish a novel about a dystopia at a time when many people felt they were already living in one? I can’t provide a definitive answer to that question. But for several years I worked in what has now become the comedy industry, from which I escaped precisely when it started getting industrial. Those years taught me a valuable lesson, which I promptly forgot. However, it’s come back to me now, and its timeless message is that when someone is feeling like shit, you should probably try to cheer them up. That’s a generalisation, but it’s certainly true that people who are having a hard time are a tough crowd to please with material that reminds them of their own misery. Outright comedy or escapism are an easier sell. 
 
But you can easily go mad trying to second-guess the market. When is the best time to publish dystopian fiction? Last year, definitely. Or perhaps next year. Why? Because that’s the best time to publish anything. No amount of cunning or calculation can guarantee you’ll catch the perfect wave to surf the zeitgeist. You might get lucky, or you might fall off your surfboard and disappear. In publishing, the overall turnaround time can easily see several years passing between an author beginning to write a book and its publication. The exceptions tend to be things like the celebrity memoir, which often appears before its alleged author has had time to read it, and books about food, dieting and fitness, which aren’t really books so much as a form of tax levied on human guilt. 
 
It may be a sign of old age to feel that the world is changing more swiftly than it used to, or perhaps the lurid carousel really is spinning faster all the time, but I’m finding it hard to write about things before they blur into history. Perhaps it’s time to revive the serial novel, in which each episode is published almost as soon as it’s written. One of the pleasures of reading Dickens, for me, is to see him incorporating the changing world around him into the novels he wrote this way. It’s a method that would at least help writers and publishers to keep up. Or maybe I should write a Utopian story, in the hope that by the time it’s published, the world will have changed for the better. But as I said earlier, we all know Utopia is boring. It’s Dystopia for me, every time, and I’ll just have to write faster. Personally, I already miss whatever terrible thing was happening before the most recent, even more terrible thing happened.



My novel, 'Please do not Ask for Mercy as a Refusal Often Offends' can be found in or ordered from book stores, or purchased direct from the publisher HERE. It can also be found on Amazon (where reviews are much appreciated).