In the quest to find a publisher for my debut novel, one particular difficulty I’ve come up against involves the repeated necessity to refer to myself. You must create a Facebook page. You need a clever Twitter handle. You have to make the world aware of everything you do.
All right, pal. But what do I say?
Social media is one thing; the biography page of an author’s website is quite another. This section throws up a range of issues for anyone looking to get a foot in the publishing door. While it seems indulgent to partake in the kind of online soul-searching that seeks to answer the question, Am I a writer? it might be revealing to take a closer look at some of the reasons why it can be a challenge, in describing yourself and your work, to find suitable words and strike the right tone.
An awareness of existing outside of something does not represent a new experience or an original thought. Artists and writers from George Bernard Shaw to Dee Dee Ramone have riffed upon a sense of feeling somehow detached. What I’m talking about here, though, as regards the task of formulating the author biography section, is not a sense of existing outside of society, but a sense of existing, specifically, outside of the publishing industry. Deliberately or otherwise, writers themselves often contribute to a feeling of being inside or outside of an exclusive community. Consider, for example, many contemporary writers’ willingness to stop their work and prescribe the rules of writing. Rules, by their nature, create an outside. What does it mean if I don’t keep a word count? Don’t read my sentences aloud? Don’t love what I do? What does it say about me if I write in the evening instead of in the morning, work before breakfast not after dinner, venture outdoors, stand at the window, compose in the kitchen, at the library, on the crapper?
If an aspiring author manages to navigate the pitfalls of the act of writing, he soon stumbles upon more rules and regulations as he enters the sphere of the literary agent. The first fifty pages, ten thousand words, a natural break, personal, professional, a blurb, a synopsis, a chapter outline, an email inquiry. The recent controversy when one London agent posted on Twitter a sarcastic submission letter sent by a would-be disciple (the post provoking a mixed response, it’s worth remarking, from both writers and fellow agents alike) demonstrates how seriously the guidelines for submissions ought to be taken. Break the rules here, flower, and you might find yourself up in the kind of kangaroo court at which even Norman Stanley Fletcher would surely have baulked.
Interestingly, around the time I was thinking about content for my website, I was also re-reading Nelson Algren. Algren himself found it problematic to reconcile his worldview with his place, or not, within the publishing industry. “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” he states in Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, a work produced in the early 1950s and published posthumously in 1996. “The strong-armer isn’t out merely to turn a fast buck any more than the poet is out solely to see his name on the cover of a book, whatever satisfaction that event may afford him. What both need most deeply is to get even.” Not concerned, obviously, with the matter of what to write about himself on his website, Algren’s stance nevertheless evokes a spirit of belligerence that seems sorely lacking in today’s writing and publishing arena. It’s impossible to say how Algren might approach a twenty-first-century literary agent and the sharp observations (and various pictures of cats, dogs, desks, books, laptop screens, snacks and cups of coffee) on his or her Twitter feed, but I suspect the exchange might be edifying for all.
Not instructive, either, in my attempts to find the right words for the biography part of my website was a recent email communication with another London agent. Here I discovered what I already knew. Trends and the bottom line. Quite understandable. It’s a business, not a charity, or some kind of therapy. Yet the agent’s message didn’t offer a great deal of encouragement in terms of my believing in the inclusivity and openness of the publishing racket. “Brilliant” prose, he wrote, “as good and probably better than most of the stuff that gets published and on the prize lists.” At the same time, though, he described a situation, almost apologetically, in which it would be impossible to shift a Yorkshire novel about gambling on the football, even in a World Cup year, because of its northern setting, its sporting subject matter and the fact that most publishing houses cater to a seventy percent female readership.
I’m a big boy, though. I understand the game. Clearly, you can be too precious about your relationship to the industry. You can take yourself and your work too seriously. You can be unrealistic in your expectations or blinkered in the measure of your potential audience or your talent.
And your manuscript might be a bag of shite.
The question remains, however: Does it matter how an author describes himself or how other people, inspecting his website, categorise his output or come to judge his endeavours? Should a writer struggle to get inside? Algren again: “If you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anybody in the alley no matter how hungry you may get. And you won’t write anything that anyone will read a second time either.”
As I’ve discovered in the last couple of years, it’s difficult enough to convince those in the industry to read your work once. For a variety of reasons, the idea of writing something that a publishing insider might read a second time sounds optimistic in the extreme. In this context, the image of the writer as strong-armer, street robber or safecracker seems to speak to the state of British publishing itself. If a debut author manages to gain entry and, with a bit of luck, subsequently escape, whilst maintaining a semblance, at least, of his originality and integrity, despite the rules and regulations, the conventions and limitations, the reductive analyses, he might rightly consider himself above the law.
Which brings me back to the challenge of describing myself and explaining my literary situation. As a consequence, perhaps, of re-reading Algren, and of the experience, more generally, of labouring to persuade an agent or a publisher to consider my manuscript, on the website I resorted to the language of the heist: “John O’Brien is looking for one big score. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.”
Follow John O'Brien on Twitter: @johnnyrises