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
The competitors in this theoretical two-horse race were always - in second place - Sherlock Holmes and - winning it by a length - Batman.
Alright, mock all you want, but as I say, it's all entirely subjective anyway. It recently occurred to me, however, that there was a third horse I was overlooking: Norfolk's favourite son, or one of them, Alan Gordon Partridge.
Dispensing with the tired horse racing analogy, Partridge is easily the greatest British comedy character ever created, in a league of his own ahead of other greats such as Basil Fawlty and David Brent. As well as being funnier even than those brilliant and timeless characters, one quality Partridge has which they don't, and which he shares with Holmes and Bruce Wayne, is longevity. While he has some way to go to attain the levels of durability those characters have shown -120 years in Holmes' case, 71 and counting in Wayne's - he has far outlasted all the other obviously comparable greats.
Fawlty and Brent lasted two series each (David Brent did of course return with some comic relief specials and Life On The Road in 2016, but, though I enjoyed the film, reception was mixed), while Alan has been with us for 26 years, over a quarter of a century, since he first appeared on the Radio 4 series On The Hour, before the character was given his own chat show Knowing Me Knowing You the following year.
On The Hour made the transition from radio to TV in 1993, renamed as The Day Today, marking the first time we saw the inept sports presenter on our screens. Knowing Me Knowing You also made the move to TV, giving a wider audience the chance to see Partridge as a standalone character for the first time. The single series of the chat show ended with Partridge accidentally shooting restaurant critic Forbes McAllister through the heart, killing him live on air. The Christmas special saw Partridge punching a disabled guest, as well as BBC chief commissioning editor Tony Hayers. As the TV career of the character died, so the character itself could have, but Alan returned to our screens three years later in the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge.
The change in format proved to be a new beginning for the character. The limitations of the chat show and sports presenter format only hinted at the possibilities, but freed from those constraints, Coogan, along with writers Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, revealed depths previously only hinted at. Partridge, now divorced from Carol, was living in a Travel Tavern, compensating for the death of his TV career by working at Radio Norwich, killing time conversing with hotel employee Michael the Geordie, making ridiculous demands of put-upon PA Lynn and trading digs with fellow DJ Dave Clifton. The traditional sitcom format showed us the full extent of Alan's Daily Express-reader Little Englander political views, his anxiety problems, and his bizarre fixation on ladyboys. The portrayal of an eternally bored, bitter and resentful man also brought a pathos that had been glimpsed only briefly in previous incarnations, taking Alan into a realm beyond that of most comedy characters.
The second series of I'm Alan Partridge was the best yet. Now living in a caravan with his younger, 'mildly cretinous' Ukrainian girlfriend Sonya on site while his new home was being built, still killing time with Michael at the BP garage where he now worked and interacting awkwardly with the builders. In this series, Coogan had grown into the character to such an extent that literally every single thing he did was funny: his every facial expression, his increasingly hunched walk, his involuntary throat noises when nervous, displaying an ownership and understanding of the character that is unparalleled. Often asked where Partridge ends and he begins, Coogan recently said to Adam Buxton that there's a lot of him in Partridge and vice-versa - how could there not be when Coogan has now been playing Alan for the majority of his life - and this series was the first time that Coogan truly did disappear into the character, so much so that at times you genuinely forget you're watching a performance. Always a huge fan, it was now that my obsession with Alan Partridge truly kicked in. My day-to-day quotes and Partridgeisms increased exponentially, often to the complete bemusement of friends and family whose love of the character didn't reach the same deranged heights as my own. I had by now discovered that there is barely an everyday situation where a direct quote from partridge cannot be used. Even in the few situations where a quote is not applicable, I often find myself thinking 'what would Alan do?' and answering questions or making points in a Partridge-esque manner.
In 2011 came the web-only series of fifteen minute shorts Mid Morning Matters, funded by Fosters Lager, exclusively for the Fosters Funny website. Though fairly inauspicious for such a beloved and popular character, this series proved to be pivotal as it was the first outing to be co-written by two new additions to the writing team; brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons. At a time when Partridge had been around for exactly twenty years and Coogan was reportedly unsure whether he wanted to play him anymore, this introduction of new writing talent breathed fresh life into the character. The lack of canned laughter for the first time in the character's history added to the feeling that you were watching a real person. Partridge once again left the BBC, this time to move to Sky Atlantic for the one-off documentary Welcome To The Places Of My Life, and two years later, the long talked about Partridge movie was released.
Often rumoured to be about Alan travelling to America to try and find fame, Alpha Papa instead wisely played to the character's parochial strengths, keeping him very much in Norfolk, with Alan working, as he had been in Mid Morning Matters (which by now had also been broadcast on Sky Atlantic), at North Norfolk Digital 'Norf- North Norfolk's best music mix'.
The track record of great TV comedies making the move to the big screen is not good. What works over a thirty minute episode may not necessarily work over ninety minutes, and in most cases doesn't, but Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa managed to buck the trend, the ninety minute running time flying by, and Coogan and the writing team all on top of their game in writing and portraying a character that now seemed to fit them all like a glove. It stands the comedy acid test of continuing to be funny, or even becoming increasingly funny, with repeated viewings. I watched it for what I think was approximately the twentieth time last weekend, and I'm not even beginning to tire of it. More than this, the film showed beyond any doubt that there is much more life in Alan yet and, following on from a superb second series of Mid Morning Matters, Alan Partridge's Scissored Isle was broadcast on Sky Atlantic in 2016.
The tale of Alan's search for redemption, and the reinstatement of several lucrative endorsement contracts, in the wake of angrily calling a teenaged guest a 'chav', the programme, along with Mid Morning Matters and two superb books; I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan and Nomad (for full effect, listen to the audio versions of each, both read by Coogan), captured every essence of what makes Partridge so great. His hubris, his sense of entitlement, his cowardice, his cynical opportunism, his deep sense of loneliness, his Simon Heffer-reading Little Englander conservatism, balanced out by a genuine attempt in recent years to be something approaching a social liberal (witness him on Mid Morning Matters talking about being mates with Dale Winton when five years earlier he'd have spat in the face of anyone who suggested the possibility of such a friendship, as well as his new, longer hairstyle), his awful, awful taste in clothes and music. It also contains, in the form of the warehouse sequence, amongst the best five and a half minutes or so in British comedy history.
More than anything, though, Partridge is a man out of place in the world. Like Brent and Fawlty, he just doesn't quite fit in. Anywhere. He's not truly part of any group. He is able to maintain his friendship with Michael the Geordie primarily because of the gulf in intellect. Other than Michael, the only other constant presence in Alan's life is Lynn on her nine-and-a-half-thousand-pounds salary. They remain part of his life largely because they are both subservient. Everyone else just ends up annoying him or, in the case of sudden new best friend Dan, turn out to be 'sex people'.
And now, via Coogan's recent appearance on The One Show, we have learned that Alan Partridge is, in 2018, about to return to BBC television (the programme is anyway, not the character, those days are gone for Alan), where he truly belongs, as 'the voice of Brexit', a role Partridge was surely born for. Sorry, created for. I was forgetting he's not a real person again. This move back to his spiritual home shows that Alan Partridge is, to use his grossly inaccurate description of his doomed chat show; 'a very healthy duck, with plenty of legs'.
By Nathan O'Hagan
It was a Friday evening sometime in May, 2016. We were sitting in a curry house in the Horsforth area of Leeds. There was me, 'Stickleback' author Mark Connors, Armley Press co-director and author John Lake, his girlfriend Jo and Wayne Leeming. The following morning we were all due at Leeds Central Library for the Big Bookend literary festival. We were doing a panel reading and Q&A session, and the event was doubling as the launch for Wayne's novel 'Justice Is Served'. Four Armley Press writers, all talking about books, films and music (a significant part of which involved me and Wayne telling Mark and John that jazz was a load of wank, them arguing otherwise), drinking beer and eating curry.
At some point in the evening, the conversation divided up and Wayne and myself, meeting for the first time, got talking about our individual stories about how we came to be published by a 'punk publisher' from Leeds. Among the usual hard-luck stories of rejection, Wayne mentioned that he had always wanted to start his own publishing press, much in the style of what John and Mick McCann had done with Armley Press. I told him I'd always imagined starting an indie record label, then also a publishing press. Then again, I've imagined doing a lot of things over the years, but always lacked either the skill, the drive or the self-belief to attempt any of them.
The conversation shifted and we moved quickly on, probably distracted by the duvet-sized garlic naan hanging from a hook at the end of our table. But the seeds of an idea had been sown, particularly in Wayne's mind, and during facebook interactions and phone calls over the coming months, we would occasionally joke about that press we were going to start up. I usually laughed it off, until sometime early this year, Wayne said, in all seriousness, 'why not?' And, other than the negative reasons I mentioned above, I couldn't think of a good reason not to.
So, over the next couple of months, we had a few phone calls where we planned out our strategy. We named ourselves after the Mission Of Burma album 'The Obliterati', and decided the only sensible option was to mimic the print-on-demand model used by Armley Press and some other small presses. One thing we decided to do differently to most publishers was, rather than setting up and looking for submissions, leading to a potential delude of books the two of us could never hope to read our way through, was to approach unpublished but talented writers we knew, and find at least our first couple of releases that way. While Wayne set to work on making our website, I took on the role of poacher. Two people sprang to mind instantly. Richard Rippon was an old mate of my sister, which is how I came to read his earlier novel 'The Kebab King' which had won The New Writing North Award and earned him an agent. After his agent had been unable to place it with the right publisher, Richard had self-published. As with many of us who've tried self-publishing, Richard had struggled to find a wide audience for 'The Kebab King', which is a shame as it's a clever and funny crime novel, and well worth checking out, so I knew he could write, and I recalled a year or two earlier him telling me about a second novel he had completed. I sent a speculative email to Richard explaining what Wayne and I were up to, fully expecting him to tell me to fuck off and shove my indie press up my arse. Fortunately, having received a fair amount of interest in his novel from a few publishers, who had wanted him to make changes he wasn't comfortable with, Richard was well up for the idea of working with a pair of clueless first-timers who didn't know what the fuck they were doing. He emailed me his manuscript, and me and Wayne read it. Within the first few pages, it was clear we'd struck very, very lucky. 'Lord Of The Dead' needed some work, but it was a superbly written, thrilling and potentially very commercial piece of crime fiction. There was not a hint of doubt that we wanted to publish it. While Richard set about redrafting the novel, with a few notes from Obliterati Press, I approached the other writer who had sprung to mind.
Authonomy was a website set up by Harper Collins to act like an electronic slush pile, and also as an online version of a writers group. People uploaded their works in progress, and received feedback, while reciprocating, with an incentive called the Editors Desk, whereby the five novels to make it onto there at the end of each month would have the first ten thousand words read by Harper Collins. Several writers on there found publication. A few chapters of my debut novel 'The World Is (Not) A Cold Dead Place' were on there and improved in part due to feedback I received. Eventually, people figured out how to play the system, Harper Collins realised they couldn't quite find a way to monetise the site, and closed it down.
One novel I'd loved on there was 'The Baggage Carousel' by David Olner. Luckily, when Authonomy closed down, we had stayed in touch via twitter. I approached him as I had done with Richard, and was very pleased that he too was enthusiastic about what Obliterati Press were trying to achieve. 'The Baggage Carousel' was at an advanced stage of rewriting so required little more than some formatting changes from Wayne. With the two novels at final draft stage, Obliterati Press were ready to launch. Any self-doubt over whether there was the room or the need for another indie publisher was quickly extinguished by the sheer quality of our first two titles. The fact that neither of these books had yet come particularly close to publication shows there can probably never be enough publishers for all the great undiscovered writers out there, just needing someone to give them a voice. Over the coming months and years, that is exactly what Obliterati Press intend to do. We'll continue our unorthodox search for writers already known to us, as well as opening for short but frequent submission windows.
Watch this space...