Sunday, October 01, 2006

I POD, Or I Intend To, Anyway

I am watching xXx on Five. Ordinarily I'm not an action movie kind of guy but xXx is an exception: it's brainless tripe but it's fun brainless tripe, and that is as valid a form of cinema as any. Like Lost In Translation and Bridget Jones's Diary, it's a comfort watch - the movie equivalent of a large bowl of mustardy mashed potatoes and a bottle of bourbon.

'Twas not ever thus, mind. I had never seen a Vin Diesel movie before xXx and had never intended to: I only got the DVD because it was free with something else (I was working at GAME at the time, a long story which I shall tell another day, and it was part of some promotion or other) and never expected it to be remotely enjoyable. It is Vin Diesel that makes it work - any number of action-movie actors could have feigned the part of musclebound-nutter-of-surprising-intelligence, but Diesel does it properly, because he's not a million miles away from that person himself.

I have to admit to admiring Diesel greatly. He has been in some truly excellent films (Pitch Black, Boiler Room, Chronicles of Riddick), some fairly trashy films that he elevated beyond their natural level (xXx, The Fast And The Furious) and one of the best video games I've ever played (Escape From Butcher Bay).

He also starred in MultiFacial. In fact he wrote the script, produced it and allegedly wrote the music and did the catering. Never heard of it? Not surprising: it was a short that was shown at Cannes in 1995 and apparently met no small acclaim - Steven Spielberg saw it, called him in to do Saving Private Ryan and the rest is history.

Nobody expected this bouncer with delusions of grandeur to make it. Nobody seriously believed that this very ordinary guy with a creative streak could actually create anything, because ordinary people don't do anything special - they slog away at their ordinary lives, pop out a few ordinary kids and know their damn place. Film stars are special.

Most people would cry 'bollocks' at this, and rightly too, but surprisingly few truly believe it. It's so much easier to put it down to luck or good looks or money or privilege when somebody succeeds than to admit that they just worked harder than everyone else, that they simply believed they could do it and kept plugging away until they got there. There's a line from xXx that resonates: when somebody asks Diesel where he learned to shoot like that he tells them he picked it up from playing PlayStation games.

I have always admired self-starters. Take Anais Nin: she tried for ages to get a book published but nobody was interested - she made good money writing porn but this wasn't enough. She felt strongly that she had something to say about the human condition - in particular, the female psyche - and believed it so firmly that when faced with repeated rejections she finally saved up for a printing press and made the damn thing herself. A Spy In The House Of Love is an excellent novel and would never have seen the light of day if she hadn't believed. William Blake not only had his wife stitch his books together but even ground his own inks. Many years ago I printed, bound and published my own short story collection Paying For Breakages off my own back, using a self-built Linux PC and a knackered inkjet printer. That's what you do when you believe: I didn't make a lot of money but I did sell some books.

Ask any major publishing company why they don't feel threatened by the recent emergence of Print-On-Demand publishers (do you feel an actual point coming on?) and they'll very likely tell you it's an issue of quality control: when you buy a book from a conventional publisher you know it will meet their standards of quality, that you won't be wasting your money on rubbish. Except of course that is often not the case at all: leaving aside the issue of bad editing (and there is a lot of this about - I suspect that editors, along with submission readers, were the first to be made redundant when publishers started cost-cutting) the fact remains that an awful lot of novels are just crap, badly written or simply boring and samey, moneyspinners with no heart. A friend of mine says that POD publishers will almost certainly become a ghetto for poor writing: this is not untrue, but only because POD is currently seen as an exception, almost as a genre: when it matures enough to become merely a process it will no more be considered responsible for the quality of the books it produces than the Gutenberg press. Readers will decide what they like, and crucially all the stuff they don't like will still be available for other people whose tastes differ to obtain. Just because a market is small doesn't mean that market doesn't deserve to be met, and POD provides an opportunity for the very smallest markets to be catered for.

Book publishers, like movie studios and game publishers and record labels, have become so risk-averse that they can only afford to publish stuff that imitates what came before: they can only afford dead certs. This is why the breadth and quality of stock in our bookshops is diminishing, why all the jackets look the same (seriously, check out the covers next time you're in a book store and count the ones that have arms, legs and torsos of models but no heads) and why I've only bought one book in the whole of the last year (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, since you ask).

I won't insult you by explaining the Long Tail - Wikipedia does it better anyway - but it seems to me that this is the only way the creative businesses will survive. The movie industry has already cottoned onto this, in fact: Napoleon Dynamite and Sideways are non-blockbusters but have done very well for themselves not in spite of their quirkiness but because of it. The music industry has always been cyclic in nature, as each generation of anti-establishment upstarts become the establishment the next generation kick against. But book publishing, a dinosaur at the best of times, is not keeping up. I'm not just a writer, I'm a reader too, and I am bored out of my skull - I don't read book reviews, I don't care about the top twenty and I am not swayed by advertising: I buy books because I pick them up and read the back and think 'that sounds pretty cool'. If all that's available is the latest bloody Stephen King or one of the dozen or so Da Vinci Code knockoffs then I won't buy anything.

All of which is my way of saying I'm considering publishing my last novel Living Things through Lulu.com. I could have just said that, of course, but I do like to meander. This way I get to design my own jacket, do my own marketing and rest easy in the knowledge that no moronic publisher is going to tell me to add an entire new character to my book to boost sales to a particular demographic (something that has happened to one writer of my acquaintance, the poor sod). A multimillion bestseller would be nice but honestly, a writer writes to tell his stories to people who are interested, not to make his fortune. Publishers and agents do an important job and are very good at it, but the job they do is one of making profit, not deciding what is good. You, the reader, are the only one whose opinion counts.

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