The Big Read: My 15 minutes of 'what if'

08 December 2014 - 08:38 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey
A man in a bookstore. File photo
A man in a bookstore. File photo
Image: Gallo Images/ Thinkstock

There's a story, and it might even be true, about the shortest correspondence in history.

Victor Hugo finished writing Les Miserables, a lengthy realist novel about an unhappy man named Lester, then turned it over to be published and went on holiday, declaring he didn't wish to be troubled by such tawdry concerns as marketing, publicity or sales figures. Some weeks later, tweaked by curiosity or just bored beside the pool, he sent his publisher a telegram that simply read "?"

His publisher replied: "!" Which just goes to show the difference between Victor Hugo and me, because when he opened the cable he leant back with his top hat at a rakish angle, cried "Voila!" and lit a smug cigarillo, correctly assuming this to mean that sales were going well. If I were to receive a cable with only an exclamation mark, I would automatically assume it to mean "Run, the police are onto us".

I have just published a book, and while this part of the process is preferable to the earlier part of writing the damn thing, it's no moustache-twirling holiday in the sun, dabbing clam juice from your chin with wadded up 100-franc notes. The modern writer who has written has many responsibilities. For one thing, you must set out on the lonely odyssey of visiting every bookstore in the country like a truffle-pig, snuffling out copies of your book from the loamy corners where they're buried and moving them to a more prominent place at eye level.

This is a tricky art. Bookstores have local authors' likenesses captured on facial-recognition software, so the moment I enter, even if I'm disguised with a monocle or a Scream mask, they start following me around, ready to snatch my book from its new place in the sun and return it to the Siberia of "Local Humour" or "SA Non-Fiction". It's a David Attenborough-esque dance of life: you have to place it somewhere to catch the eye of a casual browser, but somewhere the staff won't think to look for it. Oh, carefree days of summer. I hope the bookstore staff enjoy our little game as much as I do.

Next comes the long bombardment of social media, where you reward people for following you by subjecting them to waves of naggy, ingratiating urgings to come to your book launch. It's humiliating: entire generations of writers who in former times would have been misty, distant figures of mystery are reduced to side-show hucksters or timeshare salesmen. "Just come to the launch! Have a free glass of wine! No obligation!"

When the rains are especially scarce, some writers might post copies of favourable reviews, or perform a sad practice called "retweeting compliments", which is like being a crazed villager roaming the cobbled streets shouting, "John Brown can't wait to spend the weekend curled up with my book, three exclamation marks!" or "Sipho V. says he likes my style lol!"

I've so far avoided this fate, and I had aspirations of standing above the launch-invite morass as well, until one day I thought, "But then what if no one comes?"

When you've written a book and sent it out to the world, you can cherish all manner of dreams about it. You can imagine families huddled at the fireside, taking turns to read aloud and warm themselves at the golden glow of your words. In your head, all the world's abuzz with admiration; people can talk of nothing else. The book launch is where you first run nose-first into the closed glass patio door of reality.

It's a weird counterintuitive operation, where an individual whose chosen life path is to sit alone in a closed room is suddenly hauled into public like a deep-sea fish plucked into the air to make goggle-eyed gulping faces, usually in conversation with another author with the same problem.

One part of you hopes no one will arrive so you can just turn your collar up against the shame and slink back into the night; a bigger part, obviously, prays for just the opposite. I've told you before about the time I gave a reading for an audience consisting of a fine young man named Panayotti and his mom. I actually have good memories of that day, but I don't think my wretched heart could stand another.

But of course it can. By the time you read this I'll have completed my launches, and I may well already have been left standing at a bookstore like some ragged hitchhiker on the highway out of Port Elizabeth, trying to get someone to slow down. If that happens, it will be embarrassing, but I'll survive. He who writes for fortune is a fool, they say. I've done what I can; now there's nothing else to do but write something else.

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