by Kim Kelly

pigs flying

STRETCHING THE IMAGINATION

‘And this is Kim Kelly, our beloved local writer,’ so I was introduced at a function a little while ago.

‘Acclaimed and celebrated beloved local writer,’ I corrected the host and, being a bookish, non-bullshitty pair, we had a jolly old chortle at it.

It seems a writer can’t go anywhere without a string of wildly hyperbolic adjectives these days. Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, how else do we sell writers to readers? Left up to most writers I know, including yours truly, the more apt exaggeration would likely read:

‘Certifiably barking and semi-permanently exhausted and broke author of fiction she always hopes is a bit better than the mental excrement she fears it might really be, [insert author name] has navigated tsunamis of self-doubt and industry indifference to bring you this still beating piece of her own heart. Here you go – please don’t say too many mean things about it.’

No matter how much honesty there might be in it, it’s not an attractive pitch. Unless desperation is your winning brand, most authors are compelled to learn early on that honesty is not the best policy.

No-one wants to hear how your insecurities and frustrations drive you to the point of dangerous despair. The tortured artist might have been fashionable in Paris or Prague once upon a time in Literary Fantasyland – such a character might indeed be the subject of your novel – but readers, and publishers especially, don’t want to know too much about the depths of your reality. Unless, of course, such chat will help sell your book.

Talk up your strengths and your winning goals, we’re told. Don’t mention your failures and disappointments. I had one adviser early on in my career who told me it was best never to speak at all unless spoken to: ‘And Kimmy, don’t even answer the phone unless it’s a journalist from a respectable publication. And whatever you do, DO NOT SPEAK TO BLOGGERS!’

Those were the days. Can anyone remember what it was like before blogging? I can’t. When my last novel was published, I agreed to a blog tour across which I was called upon to provide some 12,000 interminable words about myself – for free – and within about a three-week period. The insanity that little fiesta of writer-ripoffery induced has wiped all pre-blog memory from this brain – but I digress.

‘Smile! Remember everyone who loves you!’ my better angel somehow always manages to make herself heard above the din. Oh and how I do hold all loveliness close. Those who say nice things about my work, however glancing, are my glue in this game – and that’s no exaggeration. When a reader tells me they liked my book and I tell them that I wept with relief and gratitude on receipt of their praise, I mean I wept with relief and gratitude. Bumping souls with strangers in this strange and wonderful space is the reason I write in the first place. I really do weep with some awe that any of it is possible at all.

‘You should use an exclamation mark there, Kimmy, to emphasise your sincerity. Learn to use emoticons effectively too – you know readers might not understand your tone if you don’t show them.’ Like they’re not capable of absorbing and interpreting whole books.

For Feckenerty’s sake. The book-buying public needs to be enticed, yes, but contrary to all marketing and sales estimates, not a lot of them are stupid. And today, in this brave new age, they have Uncle Google to help them should they be unsure of an author’s adjectives.

If you’re going to say, for example, that you were longlisted for the Miles Franklin, you’d better be certain you were. Or so wisdom might suggest. Such is the pressure on authors now, such is the scrabbling to stand out from the crowd, some risk treading a very fine line between souped-up spruik and lie.

‘Award-winning author of fiction,’ reads a banner that stretches obscure prize for a thesis on poultry-keeping into a bold and authoritative claim. Not that I have anything against chickens, but…

I had to laugh when, some time ago, one publisher described my own novels as ‘bestselling titles’. Of course, being the lowbrow carny I am, I’ve used that line, in all its industry technicality, in correspondence here and there, but I wouldn’t lay such a steaming one at the feet of readers. What’s wrong with: ‘Enjoy more of Kim Kelly’s novels, which have sold respectably well!’? Seriously, is that so bad?

One of the saddest porkies I’ve ever been handed came from a fellow author, though. We’d been toasting a fabulous review of their latest work when the author turned to me and said: ‘And it was such a surprise! Isn’t it incredible to know your words have found their mark across the void?’

‘Hm. Indeed,’ was all I could manage in reply, as the stench of overcooked fib swirled in the air between us. I knew the author and the reviewer were old friends. It wasn’t any secret: I’d just read the book and the name of the reviewer was still blinking at me from the acknowledgements page. Oops.

I guess any industry that even vaguely trades in razzle-dazzle is going to be rife with these sorts of deceptions, these tweaks of the truth, but I wish my industry could be free of them. How good would it be to have a moratorium on hype? Prove how unnecessary it is. Focus on the brilliance in each other’s work instead. Save the tricks of fiction for our pages. Perhaps one day…

Or perhaps pigs might fly.