Friday, July 24, 2009


Today, a little Mortification arrived in the post. It is a book edited by Robin Robertson and its subtitle is 'Writers' Stories of their Public Shame' as recommended to me by P.D. Smith. It is hilarious.

There is nothing a group of authors like more than to outdo each other with tales of mortification, and reading this book has caused me to remember one my own.

My book had just come out. I was excited. I was expecting something to happen - I wasn't quite sure what, but not this.

A librarian rang me. She wanted a female author for their Orange event. Lots of people had professed an interest so they thought they would combine it with a little scheme they had to initiate a reading group. Could I come and tell them how I'd come to get my book published?

I spent several hours preparing my talk. I drove up to the library about fifty miles distant in light drizzle. It took me some time to find but I arrived with about fifteen minutes to spare. The place was festooned with orange balloons, orange paper plates and napkins, numerous bottles of wine - red and white - were open on the table. There were nibbles of many varieties, badges, streamers, books on display...

"Over forty people have taken tickets!" One of the librarians told me excitedly. "There's been such a lot of interest." We sipped orange juice and waited.

And waited.
"Bound to be late," one of younger librarians said. "Nobody like to be early."
An older librarian munched thoughtfully on a twiglet. "Such a shame we missed the Chronicle."

"How much were the tickets?" I asked.
"Free. People just took them as they went through the door."

When a middle-aged hippy in a long dress and beads walked in we mobbed her. She sat in the middle of the front row of rows of empty seats looking quite pleased to be the centre of such attention.

It was unfortunate she came. It meant I had to give my talk: earnestly and awkwardly. Everyone paid avid attention and laughed too loudly. At the end we overdosed on crisps. Each librarian bought one of my newly published books sent to the library in a box by my publisher.

It was dark when it ended and the drizzle was still going strong.

It didn't seem so funny then. There were roadworks and the journey back was slow. Hodmandod Senior was waiting up for me and I disconsolately turned on my computer before I went to bed. An email pinged in. I still have it:

"You have asked for comments about your book "Wegener's Jigsaw", and I feel I have some constructive things to say about it.

Reviews of the book praise it as magnificently written and beautiful, as having a poetic style.

But surely, it is written in a flat, dull, prosaic, mechanical, one thing after another, matter-of-fact style. I have read in it again and again and just cannot see how the style could be called poetic.

There are often what surely can only strike a reader as irrelevant observations thrown in (possibly intended as colour?).

I feel a reader can surely only experience it as an over-long, tedious, unrewarding read.

The standard of writing of the book does not seem to be what would be expected of an adequate Creative Writing teacher.

I read your book because I know someone interested in the geological subject matter, and I wanted to see if I might be able to say it was worth their reading it. I can only say it is a very poor read that I cannot recommend.

As I read it now I am surprised to find that it still hurts - even after 6 years. It seemed such a vindictive thing to write - but then this book business can be such a mean vindictive business.

But that incident at the library was funny.


Blogger Jud said...

What is an "Orange" event?

Fri Jul 24, 10:39:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Oh sorry, Jud - I should have explained. It's the Orange Prize for fiction. Several years ago a group of women in the book industry thought women authors deserved more a voice since they were rarely picked for the Booker or the Whitbread (now the Costa). It is open to any novel written in English by a woman.

There are protests now that women don't need that any more, and there should be prize for male authors only to match.

Fri Jul 24, 10:47:00 pm  
Blogger Colin Shelbourn said...

Writing a book is hard. Offering criticism is easy.

Fri Jul 24, 11:41:00 pm  
Blogger Al said...

Funny in hindsight maybe, but it must must have been painful at the time.
As to the sod who sent you that email, well... the less said the better.
For what it is worth, I have enjoyed everything I have read on your blog.

Sat Jul 25, 02:18:00 am  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Your story about the library really resonates. I can recall once being invited to a signing at a bookshop some 60 miles away, finding hardly anyone there, learning that the event wasn't advertised, and being told "well it is the night of the big football game so we didn't really expect many people."

About that dreadful e-mail, I think every writer gets horrid, ridiculous messages sometimes. For example, in one of my cosmology books, I was trying to fashion a metaphor for things that are humanly impossible (at present), and cited the example of people travelling to the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench, some 7 miles beneath the surface. Someone posted a review on a bookselling site stating that he couldn't accept any of the book as factual because I didn't know about a particular bathysphere expedition of 1960. And my book had nothing to do with the ocean! Shame it is often hard to dismiss silly negative comments.

Sat Jul 25, 04:41:00 am  
Blogger Colin Shelbourn said...

Rule 47 of writing (and illustrating): Never look at something just printed or you will instantly see the typo. Leave it a month.
Rule 48: Never read crits or reviews.
Rule 49: Assume all negative criticism levelled at one's work is the result of the reviewer's unhappy childhood or an undiagnosed personality disorder.
Rule 50: If upset by results of breaking Rule 48, cheer yourself up by thinking of all the royalties pouring in during the time it took you to read the negative criticism.

Sat Jul 25, 10:14:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Al! Certainly hurt at the time - and for a time thought he might be someone I knew writing under another name, but he wasn't. Just a stranger.

Ha, Paul - there's always something else on, isn't there? Every time, I've found.

That reviewer sounds odd! Maybe she had a vested interest or at least a fixation about that 1960 expedition. What a ridiculous thing.

Yes, Colin - all good advice (although 50 assumes royalties and book sales which not many of us actually make in literary fiction).

Sat Jul 25, 10:41:00 am  
Anonymous Susan said...

When I first read your post, I was too horrified to comment. Poor Clare! Even though we all know it was ignorant and unjustified, it must have caused you a lot of pain. I've been mulling it over for a couple of days and come to the conclusion that the only possible explanation is that your poison pen correspondent is mentally ill. Your writing is beautiful!

Sun Jul 26, 04:28:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Susan. Yes, my publicist at the time summed up similar feelings: 'Complete psycho!'

For a long time it was the only feedback I had from a 'member of the public' and looking back it was ridiculous how much it affected me.

Sun Jul 26, 11:58:00 am  
Blogger jem said...

I laughed at the criticism of your novel as being 'one thing after another' - that's mostly how I like my writing to be. One word after the next, one sentence, paragraph and so on. And even plot wise, I can tire of these jump all over the shop approaches!

Tue Jul 28, 02:58:00 pm  

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