Guy Gavriel Kay – Under Heaven, and the Book World Under Siege

guy gavriel kay

A first public reading from a new novel is an interesting exercise. Over the years, and with eleven books now, I have learned (probably too slowly) how many variables go into what works and what doesn’t.

The starting point is to be aware that this is a public experience, not just for the author, but for the audience as well. How one reacts to writing in silence and privacy will be different from a response in a group of twenty-five at a bookstore, and different again if there are three or four hundred people in a theatre.

As I prepared to launch my newest book, Under Heaven, knowing a number of North American readings in various cities were to follow publication date, I went through a now-familiar exercise of deciding what I’d read, what I wanted listeners – possible readers – to hear as their first exposure to a novel based on the glittering period of Tang Dynasty China.

Mostly in the past few years, I read from early in the book. This has two virtues, or so it seems to me. One is that it reduces the time required for ‘backfill’ … you know, the explanations to bring the audience up to speed with what they need to know in order to make sense of what they are about to hear. This can be deadly dull, is usually rushed, often confusing – and confused or sleeping audiences are generally seen as counterproductive in this business.

The other benefit of reading an early section is that it reduces spoilers and readers are increasingly spoiler-phobic these days, especially with a long-awaited new book. (Don’t get me started on movie trailers telling the whole damned plot in three minutes, either.)

With Under Heaven I had the luxury of a test run, a focus group, even. I was at a conference in San Jose last autumn, six months before the book was to appear, and used the presence of a number of my readers (and the merely curious) to do a long first reading – essentially the first chapter of the novel. There is nothing like actually gauging the nature of an audience’s response to help fine-tune something like this.

But that convention weekend in California, and discussions with other writers and editors also fine-tuned something else for me: an awareness of the degree to which the literary world is shifting towards a foregrounding of personality as a way of marketing and selling our books.

It is a shift with implications that just keep rippling.

On Saturday night at that same gathering, I found myself in the hotel bar (no idea how that happened) with a literary agent from England. I want to stress, by way of context, that this wasn’t an especially young man (that matters) and he is an intelligent, well-read person (that matters, too).

As we watched a World Series game on the television in the bar (that doesn’t really matter, but it was a great game), the agent told me about his work methods these days.

He said that when dealing with any new submission by a writer looking to be taken on as a client, he’ll read a chapter or two. If the manuscript doesn’t work for him, he’ll stop and move to something else. If it shows promise, he still puts the manuscript aside and goes to his computer – to undertake a search for the prospective author-client in cyberspace.

He checks Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, looks for a webpage. He rattled off some other online acronyms and social networks that were merely a smattering of initials to me. He does a Google image search to check how they look, hunts for the writer’s presence in comments on other writers’ blogs.

‘But why?’ I protested.

‘Because if I don’t see him strongly out there, I am far less likely to take him on as a client,’ he said. And sipped his scotch with impeccable timing (a former actor, actually).

I made the medieval sign against evil, and looked in vain for an oak tree around which to run counterclockwise. (The bar top was marble, no help.)

‘You can’t be serious!’ cried I.

‘Of course I am,’ he said patiently. ‘I need to know how much he or she will help me sell their books.’

I drank from my own scotch, less smoothly.

What are we to make of this, other than the absurdity of an author looking for oak trees inside a bar in California? My point here (to make it easy) is that while the book trade has always had an element of writers performing jigs (as Bernard Shaw once put it), the culture today has writers dancing as fast as they can, and on a daily or even hourly basis. Privacy, in so many ways, is under siege.

I am also aware that at the time of that conversation I had just finished the first reading from Under Heaven and, as I write these words, I am in the last stages of post-publication touring for that book. I’ve been dancing, in online interviews and through airports to book signings and in-person interviews pretty fast myself. There are ironies here. That’s what has me writing this.

The collision of many trends has created, like a mash-up of elements, a new book world reality. Take a ‘cult of personality’ society, add a severe cutback in marketing budgets, mix in the seductive ease of ‘broadcasting’ oneself online, siphon in reality shows with their vicious erosion of the very idea of privacy- and you have a literary world where the author is now his or her own marketing machine, however well or badly that machine is tuned.

This has many implications, but one of them has to do with a radical revision in what might be called the author-reader relationship. The principle consequence is the disappearance of spaces … between author and consumer and between author and work.

To an increasing degree, we sell our books on our personality online, as the agent suggested to me that night. Or, as he put it more carefully a bit later, on the personalities we construct for ourselves online.

There are consequences of all sorts to this blurring, or erasing, of borders and lines – to the emergence of an author as an online friend to readers, and I’m not just talking about time lost from work or what the word ‘friend’ really means in this context.

There’s a value to looking at a work of art separately from one’s sense of (or manufactured sense of) the artist who made it. And there’s importance to a space between artist and consumer.

The online world has seen ugly flare-ups where readers have viciously assailed authors for (as an example) being late with a promised manuscript. As if the delivery was something owed to the readership, part of some unwritten contract, the breach of which could legitimize cyber-rage. One well-known author, fighting complex challenges in a multi-volume project, had readers attack him on his own blog for watching too much football, taking a holiday with his wife, working on an editing project, not exercising enough.

One shakes one’s head (for starters). But there’s an aspect to this that needs to be noted. The only reason the readers knew of the football watching and the holiday was because the author had told them, on that same blog, had been in regular contact as to various elements of his life. Another writer, a major bestseller, is reported to tweet up to a dozen times a day, to a massive army of Twitter followers. This is undeniably effective marketing and manipulation. It is also something expected now. Justin Bieber’s manager was quoted recently as saying, “If I see he’s not Twittering, I tell him ‘Get on your Twitter.’” Living in the glass house in which I dwell here, I am not going to twit said manager on using ‘twittering’ instead of ‘tweeting’. I am also aware that Bieber hasn’t written a book. Yet.

But this point hits the book world hard, as well. Readers feel a sense of connection – empowerment, even personal affection – for a writer online, but anyone in any kind of relationship knows that there are nuances that can kick in, and may lead to vitriol, or orders to get on an exercise bike and lose weight so the promised book won’t be forestalled by something really annoying like the author dying.

As yet another irony, one of the themes that emerged from my research for Under Heaven, is the recurrence of ‘balance’ as an element that engaged the great writers of the Tang Dynasty: the balance between withdrawing to work and think, and the pleasures (and duties) of taking a role on the public stage. Under Heaven picks up on this as a theme. It is partly a book about this tension, set against a backdrop of looming rebellion.

And today? It seems to me that we writers, hastening to forge these new bonds and links with readers, to fill the space left by an absence of publisher marketing, are willingly engaged in eroding our own privacy and the space that can be necessary to produce not only good art but a good life. It feels, at times, lemming-like. Tweet where the cliff is.