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The Malign Pyramid of Derivation: From John Le Carre and Len Deighton to James Ward

July 8, 2016

 

Lately, I’ve been trying to work out a way of advertising my books on Facebook. I’m not naturally a very sociable sort of person. Don’t get me wrong: I like people and I’m not aware of having any enemies. But I don’t actively seek out friendships. Eight years ago, I belonged to a now defunct writers’ website called Authonomy. After two months I ended up with about fifty friends. Then felt guilty about bringing virtually nothing to each “friendship”.

Anyway, that’s not what this blog post is about. You don’t need friends to advertise on Facebook; you just need a bit of cash – and not even much of that.

One thing you do need, though, is precise marketing. If you want to target your novels effectively, it helps to be able to say yours are just like those of someone else; or that your protagonist is just like some other novelist’s. Which only works in so far as there’s a chain of derivation stretching from a handful of the world’s bestselling authors, down through lesser, traditionally published authors, and so on, down to the minnows. Thousands – maybe millions - of indy authors form the base. Morally, however, they’re all roughly equivalent. Everyone’s hitching a ride on the top guys.

And the top guys may be where they are chiefly because of luck. Or skill at hiding their deriving. Or because they set out to be derivative, but, ironically, they’re just not that good at it: they accidentally end up penning something vaguely original.

So what’s the point of writing a novel? 

Love of writing is one answer; money another; fame another; therapy (of a sort) another.

A fifth answer is rarely mentioned in any list of this sort, but I want to suggest that, for the vast majority of writers, it’s by far the most important. 

To pay tribute to another specific, more successful author. 

For many writers, to say of their work that “it’s just like John Le Carre/ EL James/ Gillian Flynn/ Jill Mansell” is to pay them a significant compliment (depending of course, on the genre). 

The publishing industry and the reading public are probably as much to blame for this as anything. Literary agents always want to know where exactly your (unpublished) book might go in a bookshop. “If you like Jojo Moyes, you’ll love this” is the sort of thing that makes them salivate. One assumes they only love that sort of statement because publishers loved it first; and publishers because they know it’s what the public wants.

As a consequence, what we have is a huge pyramid of derivation with very little originality, and in which ninety-nine per cent of all fiction is thinly-disguised fan-fiction.

And don’t imagine for a moment that literary fiction is any different. It may not be very polite to say that Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende are derivative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or that Eimear McBride is derivative of James Joyce, or that Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami are derivative of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. We tend to talk in hushed tones of “influence” here, and we make painstaking efforts – worthy of the superior esteem in which we hold the genre – to discover and emphasise differences between earlier and later authors.

Which is dubious, to say the least.

It may even be that all the other supposed reasons for writing boil down to tribute-paying. Does any author really love writing for its own sake? If he or she likes Sebastian Faulks, he’s unlikely to enjoy writing something like an Andy McNab. Arguably, what he really enjoys is the tribute-paying that writing permits him to indulge. As for money-making and fame-seeking, obviously they’re not essentially connected to writing. It may be that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, but there are far more efficient ways of making a living. Above and beyond this, what ties the author to his laptop is his love of writing, and if I am right, this comes back to tribute-paying. 

Which raises the disturbing possibility that human nature is essentially servile. If authors are amongst the most creative members of our species, ie, those most capable of empathising with complex human motives and realistically depicting both normal and unusual behaviours, and all of us are essentially mere tribute-payers, then what, really, is the point?

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