In a 2005 article about hecklers, Stewart Lee related an anecdote about his fellow stand-up comic Daniel Kitson. “Privately, the debate continues amongst comedians, ‘what is Daniel Kitson doing?’ Why, many wonder, does he do [small Edinburgh venue] The Stand when he could do the big room at Assembly? Why does he insist on shaking off half the following he has established every couple of years by doing a sensitive story show? Why doesn’t he have a nice haircut? Surely he could afford it now. But Kitson once told me, that after his Perrier nomination, he was doing a run at the Soho theatre. Sitting in a toilet cubicle one night he overheard some of his audience standing at the urinals talking, didn’t like how they sounded, didn’t like them, and realised he would have to begin a process of refining his fanbase.”
Is it OK to want to refine your fanbase? I hope so, because I quite often seem to find myself refining my fanbase by accident. Recently, for instance, I gave an interview to The Observer in which I said that I found some of the positive online reviews of my first novel more irritating than the negative ones, because of the way those people construed the book, and that in my second novel I deliberately emphasized whatever quibbles they did have in order to “slough them off.” This caused a small commotion, and, I fear, a small fanbase refinement. One of the weird things about publishing these days is that there is an enormous appetite for snuggling into the interior world of the writer—through readings, interviews, Twitter, creative writing programs, essays like this one—almost as if the book itself is not the point of it all but rather an inconvenient membrane dividing the writer from her public; and yet there is still no appetite whatsoever for considering some of the less congenial truths of the writerly experience: That praise can be more dispiriting than criticism. That we don’t necessarily respect every single one of our readers. That sometimes we write to repel as much as we write to attract. Occasionally, in interviews, you can hear these attitudes humming in the background, but they’re not often admitted, even though to deny them is to deny that writers are human beings with human psychologies.
(There are glorious exceptions, of course. In My Prizes, Thomas Bernhard recalled receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature: “What possibly had really been dreamed up by idiots as an honor, to me, the more I thought about it, was a despicable act, a beheading would be putting it too strongly but even today I feel the best description of it is a despicable act.”)
In real life, no one thinks every compliment is a good compliment. “I love your outfit—it’s so practical!” Authors, especially, are expected to have rigorous critical faculties as part of the basic equipment for the job, so there is no reason why they would abandon those faculties just because the subject happened to be their own work. To be so narcotised by the mere fact of someone saying pleasant things about you that you become absolutely indifferent to their content is the behavior of an egotist, a praise addict, like someone eating brownie mixture out of the packet because they want a sugar rush and they don’t care how they get it. In fact, when someone says to us, “It’s such a treat to switch off my brain for an hour and dive into your fun little romp of a book,” or “I liked this almost as much as I like the last novel by [successful author whose chapters often end with italicised, single-sentence paragraphs such as “Not this time, baby” or “And wouldn’t that be something?“],” we are not thrilled about it, even though they’re trying to be nice. A beheading would be putting it too strongly, but… Sure, there’s nothing more mockable than a writer who’s worried that people aren’t taking her seriously enough. But worrying that people aren’t taking you seriously enough is, at its deepest level, worrying that you haven’t written a book that deserves to be taken seriously, and wondering how you can do better.
My own first drafts are infested with cheap jokes, hollow sentiments, glib insights. Those come very easily to me. Consequently, my greatest fear as a writer is pandering, because I know the temptation is always at hand. Sometimes I think that if I had the opportunity I would interleave my prose with photographs, like W.G. Sebald, except that my photographs would be of dogs wearing hats.
And one way to exterminate pandering in your work is to pay close attention to the responses you get. The single biggest surprise to me as a debut author gaining an audience for the first time was the extent to which people insist they can’t enjoy a novel without any likeable characters. (Which rules out Lolita, Heart of Darkness, The Trial, Animal Farm, The Stranger, Rabbit, Run, A Clockwork Orange, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jealousy, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Last Exit to Brooklyn and much of the rest of the twentieth-century canon.) This is a useful example, because when someone demands likeable characters—I know I’m generalizing scandalously here—that’s often representative of a broader inhospitality to a lot of the things I prize in fiction: confrontation, ambivalence, paradox, subversion, total moral candor. And a great Amazon review from someone with literary values that you suspect to be utterly incompatible with your own can mean two things. It can mean you have written a book of such resplendent universal appeal that it converts even your adversaries. I don’t think that’s very likely in my case, otherwise my sales would be a lot higher (although perhaps this is how Bruce Springsteen explains to himself the worshipful presence of Chris Christie at so many of his concerts). Or it can mean that you’ve been pandering—producing work that you don’t honestly believe in, just because you want to caper before a mass audience.
In other words, when I talk about sloughing off certain readers, it’s not that I have anything against those people, or that I’m too good for their money, or that I don’t want them to enjoy their reading at the end of a long day. It’s because if I can write a book that those people don’t particularly care for, that will be an indication—not a proof, but at least an indication—that I’ve finally produced an uncompromised expression of the values to which I aspire as a writer. If by some chance you’ve already read my stuff, and you’re thinking, “How can a guy who writes such fundamentally frivolous and vaudevillian books evince such a pompous concern for ‘paradox’ and ‘total moral candour’ and a lot of other things that exist nowhere in his work,” well, yes, that’s precisely what makes me so neurotic about this. I want to be a more serious writer than I am. I want to be a better writer than I am. In the distance I can hear the terrible barking of the dogs wearing hats.
This concern is as old as the avant-garde. Avant-garde writing doesn’t just take difficult new forms because they’re the only way of capturing difficult new realities. Avant-garde writing takes difficult new forms also because the average commuter can’t stomach them. Out of all the modernists, it may have been Bertolt Brecht, a frenemy of the protagonist of my new novel, who was most open about deliberately constructing his plays in such a way as to keep the petit bourgeois out of his theatres: “All those today who seem to have achieved some form of harmony have nothing in common with us,” he once wrote, “and only harm us by trying to be associated with us.” Yes, there’s something teenage about this impulse: if you’re a young punk rocker and you find out that your dad likes one of your songs—or that the governor of New Jersey does—you must immediately smash your instruments and decommission the band. And I would never claim to be avant-garde myself. But my point is that the desire to “refine the fanbase” exists in almost all art, openly or not. This will come as a surprise only if you believe that an artist’s priority is to give the maximum amount of pleasure to the maximum number of people. But if that was what I wanted to do, I would have started a gelato shop.
As a writer, you’re encouraged to courageously proclaim the
truths that society won’t acknowledge—just as long as you’re meek
in interviews. You’re encouraged to devote yourself for a lifetime
to an arduous, marginal art form—just as long as you don’t come
across as elitist. You’re encouraged to seclude yourself in an
attic to produce the best work you possibly can—just as long as you
reply to your fans on Twitter. You’re encouraged to pursue your own
unique and ineffable vision—just as long as you’re responsive to
feedback. It seems to me hardly necessary to point out that the
qualities we expect of our authors today are not just irrelevant
but hostile to the intellectual conditions in which good books are
actually written. And this is why I’m not worried that being
ungracious towards my admirers makes me sound rude. Because, as a
grown-up reader, there’s not much that’s more insipid and
regressive than demanding likeable characters. But there is one
thing. Demanding likeable writers.
Ned Beauman‘s second novel, The Teleportation Accident, was recently longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.