On public readings

“At an event organised by the Writers’ Centre in Norwich the other week, one of the volunteers – a woman perhaps a few years older than me – observed that when she was young writers were semi-mythical creatures, farouche, barely ever seen in the flesh, and their only spoor faded black-and-white photographs on the backs of their books. In some ways this was an exaggeration – there have always been writers (and by this I mean specifically fiction ones) – who’ve had a public profile. In the States this was, perhaps, carried off with a little more swagger, but we Brits always had our fair crop of novelists – and even poets – who were also public intellectuals. However, given the relative paucity of media forums – a mere brace of television channels, a triad of radio ones – these were inevitably only either the most personally egregious, or the most politically or socially plangent.

“What has changed in the past 30 years is that it has become impossible for the rump of the literary profession – those middling sorts (of sales, that is, not necessarily of brow) – to earn a reasonable living simply by writing books. The abolition of the net book agreement in the 1980s heralded two simultaneous developments: a vertiginous integration of book distribution and retailing, and a simultaneous collapse in the formerly steep-sided pyramid of critical authority. To put it bluntly: the punters would no longer buy what they were told to buy by literary types, and in any case, there were no longer cosy little bookshops in which they could order these recommendations. As for writers, whose earnings had been artificially maintained by a price cartel, there were only a few options available: the time-honoured promenade of Grub Street, some altogether non-literary job, or an ignominious – and often soul-destroying – retreat into silence.”

Read the rest of Will Self’s piece about reading his work in public at the Telegraph, here.