They say a thin-skinned writer is a doomed writer. I’d say you can cut-out the “doomed” bit and it still makes sense.
Listen. Like the rest of you, I’ve watched with mouth agape as X-Factor hopefuls and talent-show noddies are shredded by the collective ire of that most modern social-arbitration MustHave: The Expert Panel. Countless times I’ve wondered how it is that Johnny Crapvoice or Jenny Mankfoot could have arrived at this point – this needle-tipped moment of unimaginable ridicule – wherein it’s explained to them, live, that despite all their protestations to the contrary they in fact cannot sing, cannot dance, and in all likeliness will never again trouble a camera-lens with their likeness. That they are in fact worthless, talentless nuggets of gristle and fear, and that should the door Hit Their Ass on the way out, they will thereafter be invoiced for sweat-clearance. That the dreams of validation and idolisation they’ve been culturing since adolescence are so much bumsoup and that – thanks to the ritual humiliation they’ve just undergone – their return to vanilla mediocrity will in all likelihood be a shitload harder than it was before.
…And I’ve guffawed at these peoples’ subsequent denials or dejections or defeats, same as you, because, really, we’re all completely horrible. How, we’ve all wondered, do these poor sods get to be so delusional?
The fact is, they’re not. The fact is that we live in a world horrendously deprived of perspective. It’s a world in which no opinion can be said to be certain, and no quality proven, until it’s been hardbaked by the nuclear attentions and vitriolic judgements of a million people – or more. Increasingly, I feel that if someone has the balls – the rippling enormogonads – to test themselves against that compound-eye of consumer attention, then (sorry) they can be forgiven for overcompensating on the confidence front. For appearing to be so damn sure they’ve got the goods. These suckers’ve spent a lifetime being uplifted by the misguided love-compliments of friends and family, but… secretly? They don’t really know. They’ve simply figured out that in the game of Risking Everything, you might as well step into the light with a swagger.
Here the is unpleasant truth. Nobody truly knows if they’re Good or Shit until someone they’ve never met – ideally lots of someones they’ve never met - says so. Be they singer, dancer, painter, elephant-tamer, stage magician, wombat-tickler or, yes, yes, yes, writer.
Nobody wants to hear this: Reviews are almost everything.
Of course, reviews can’t always be trusted. That’s particularly true in this, our frothing Internet digirealm, wherein the stakes for reviewers aren’t quite as simple as “express opinion; feel satisfied at same.” It can’t be ignored that in the anonymity of certain online communities, a vitriolic savaging of the source-material accomplishes at double-speed what no amount of carefully-considered praise ever could: entertaining one’s fellow Internauts and endearing oneself to their collective.
In my other life as a comics scriptwriter – particularly with the bigger super-hero stuff – my fellow creators will often recite a simple brain-preserving Commandment (usually over the froth of a melancholy beer): Do Not Read Online Reviews. Even editors have given me this instruction: as if swaddling me from a toxic cloud of schedule-disrupting hatred which, counter-intuitively, doesn’t seem to colour the editors’ own opinions. Theirs, maybe, is the thickest skin of all.
I read the reviews anyway, of course. Some days I feel slightly as thought it’s a transaction of judgement: the reader has the right to express an opinion on the mewling literary baby I’ve left dangling and vulnerable before his face; just as I have the right to decide that his ill-use of grammar, obsession with exclamation-marks and evident lack of actually-having-read-the-bloody-work allows me to confidently ignore his opinion.
As long as you’re not shutting your eyes to everyone, the gestalt opinion is probably roughly accurate.
Let’s narrow this down a bit.
As frequent readers will know, my latest book - A Serpent Uncoiled - was released in largescale and kindle formats last year. And it received – honestly – some astonishing reviews.
“This is the most original book of the year, and it will take a work of staggering outlandishness to wrest that title from Spurrier’s claws.” -- BookGeeks
“A Serpent Uncoiled is a great book, but not for the faint of heart. Grim, gritty and atmospheric, it is certainly for those who like their stories with verve. With great prose and dialogue, Spurrier had created a novel that will I hope become a classic.” -- Shotsmag
“An elaborately tooled razor of a book.” -- Warren Ellis
“A unique protagonist, a unique voice, and a plot that sucks you in from the first page. Spurrier's sharp, brilliant prose is addictive.” -- Mike Carey
Thin skinned? I’m so thin-skinned I’ve never needed an X-ray in my life – the doctor just stands near a candle. Happily, it turns out that a crippling inability to insulate oneself from the judgement of others works in both directions. Upon reading all these lovely reviews I started to get excited. Here, I felt, was the tipping point to my career. A tsunami of hyperbolic praise and acclaim awaited me. Simon Cowell had waggled his eyebrows, pursed his lips… and raised his thumb.
That’s an amazing moment, for a fragile-ego’d wordmonkey. At long last one allows oneself a little confidence. You’ve sat and watched as the careers of your cherished peers have matured and tumesced all around you. You’ve secretly feared all along that you’re the mediocritite, the runt, the also-ran; doomed to be humoured and condescended by the giants of your circle. And now here, finally: validation! Not quite enough to become a monster – you’re not a dick, are you? – but ohhh that quiet warmth.
They say I’m good. They say I’m good. Oh god, this is really happening…
And then the book doesn’t go up onto any shelves. And the newspaper critics have got too many “big” authors to get through and not enough space. And the UK’s biggest literary retailer is in the middle of a crisis and isn’t buying anything – especially not creepy problematic Grime Novels by silly-named comicbook geeks. Oh, and Jordan’s got a new frilly-arsed gold-embossed wordcrime out, and Jeremy Clarkson just wiped his arse and published it, and there are at least four hundred soppy middle-class village-based mystery novels to be stocked before we come to the weirdo drug-taking brainfreak Private Eye stuff, and, and, and…
I said “reviews are almost everything, right?” The remainder is purely this: Attention.
When the trade-format edition of A Serpent Uncoiled was released, it staggered onto the X-Factor stage, nervous like a nun in her knickers. It puffed out its chest and gave its most confident smile. It prayed for glory and prepared itself for humiliation. And yes, oh gorgeousness and gorgeosity, Simon Cowell raised his thumb.
But there was nobody in the bloody audience, and all the cameras were watching for Cheryl Cole’s cleavage.
I’m not bitter, really. Everything’s a learning curve, in the end. So to all the readers out there I offer Perspective, and to all the writers I offer a freebie LEVEL-UP-lesson to save you a few disappointments:
The dream of becoming a writer is a fine and noble thing. The hoops one must jump to achieve it are fiery, vertiginous and smell like fart. There is no safety mat. No trainer. No chalk-pot to help you grip. And once the routine’s over and you’ve landed -- ohhh the relief!
But it’s all bollocks. The hoops never stop. They just change their shape from time to time. Quality, my loves, Isn’t Enough.
The paperback edition of A Serpent Uncoiled is out this week.
And if I want to sell my book – and you’d imagine I probably do – I’ve got to take responsibility for that. And, possibly, to get a little crazy. Behold: