On Tuesday evening I went and saw Will Self at The Ropetackle in Shoreham as part of his book tour for ‘Shark’. I can’t remember how I heard about it but it was sold out when I checked the website at the weekend. I phoned Tuesday afternoon and it was still sold out so I asked if it was worth turning up and waiting to see if any seats remained empty…the woman said, maybe. So I went. The front desk said there were no tickets but the man in front had just asked about a refund on a couple of spares, so I approached him with a friendly smile and a crisp tenner, and bought one. That is what is commonly known in the trade as ‘a right result’.
I really wanted to go because it’s not very common for a top, respected, Man Booker short-listed author to come down to these parts, at least I didn’t think so. Turns out he’s been down here about 10 times, so I haven’t been looking hard enough. I like his journalism and his refreshing point of view on Question Time (not enough authors, too many actors), ‘5mm Barrel’ and I’ve read half of ‘The Book of Dave’. I feel bad. I loved his writing but at one point what I thought was a kind of moped turned out to be a some kind of cow-type animal and I thought, ‘Fuck this. If I can’t tell the difference between a cow and a moped what else have I missed.’ So I gave up. The concept of the novel has always stuck with me along with the writing. It’s so rich, and not just an interesting read but funny too. It’s not an easy read though and I think that’s where I went wrong, trying to read it last thing at night when all my brain and eyes want to do is shutdown.
It was great to see an experienced, professional author do a tour event. Kicking off with some funny stories interspersed with some political and personal jibes and leading onto why he wrote ‘Shark’, the inspiration and how he wrote it. This was the most interesting part for me, directly hearing how a top author goes about his writing. The fact he wraps up the final drafts by hitting himself in the face to stay awake whilst writing for 16 hours straight didn’t paint the cocktail swigging, beach lounging paradise of other authors, but it shows commitment.
Then Will read from ‘Shark’. This was an eye-opener. He read it with emotion, accents, arm movement, even a bit of singing. I wouldn’t have expected an author to do this, it’s almost acting, but Will did it so well. His words came alive. They were being read by the author himself, and so were being read how they were meant to be read.
I wouldn’t say Will is a raconteur even though he is funny and engaging, but there is a confrontational quality to him and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly…not even half-heartedly. After the reading there was a Q&A and some people asked some valid questions including why does ‘Shark’ not have any chapters and paragraph breaks and Will replied with the fact that this format is not original, it’s been done before, and he wanted to keep the flow uninterrupted. Then one woman asked, ‘Without chapters how does the reader know when to stop and go to the toilet?’. She was given no quarter as her intelligence and continence was questioned.
To one question, Will answered that the person should ‘stretch themself’ as a reader. Just because there are no chapter or paragraph breaks, just because there’s time shifts, narrator shifts, flashback shifts, cows that are used like mopeds, doesn’t mean the book is flawed. It means you, as a reader, need to stretch yourself, become more engaged and concentrate more.
Here was an author standing up for authors and their right as an artist to ‘stretch’ themselves. Shouldn’t readers have to do the same?
In Amazon reviews there’s so much about the writer did this well, didn’t do this well, should’ve done this, blah, blah. Hang on. Are you a decent fucking reader? Are you reviewing this from the point of view of someone who needs to be told when to take a piss?
Should authors be afraid to experiment because of unadventurous readers and live in fear of their unadventurous reviews? It was this point of standing firm, believing in your writing and believing in your story and the way you tell it, that I found strangely liberating. Not that I had a personal deficiency in this aspect myself, but actually hearing someone speak out about it and say, maybe it’s not the writer’s problem but the reader’s.
How often have you read a few pages whilst slipping into other thoughts and daydreaming as your mind blindly reads the words? Or left large gaps between reading chapters until the novel becomes a total mystery every time you pick it up?
The onus always seems to be with the writer. Well, what about the reader? Isn’t there an onus on us to be better, to stretch ourselves? If readers stretched themselves more then a Man Booker long-listed novel might actually outsell a Katie Price ghost written novel.
Will then grabbed his bag and walked off stage. The host hastily wrapped it up and we all clapped but it was great to see an artist act himself and speak his mind. No pretensions or presenting a media friendly, sanitised version of himself. His job is to write…and hit himself in the face.
I bought ‘Shark’ and queued up to get it signed for no particular reason other than he was there and I’d arrived without a ticket so leaving with a signed copy of his latest novel was a nice little reward for my adventure. What am I going to speak to him about? I told him that I really enjoyed his reading and he was as nice as pie, thanked me for coming and that he really appreciated it.
He’s a pussy cat really 🙂