You want to know what it’s like to have a passionate S&M affair?*

If I were more confident and assertive, and loved public speaking, I might have made the following point at a recent Open Book panel. But I’m none of those things. The panel was on the all-too-familiar topic of how we can increase sales of SA fiction. People said we could lower book prices. We could encourage more people to read, especially children. We could sell people books on their cell phones or their tablets. Blah. Blah. Etcetera. There were lots of fine points raised.

But my point would have been that we have the opposite of a reading problem. All that people are doing these days is reading fiction. All day, every day. They’re just not doing it in book form; they’re doing it online.

The reason this is happening is that everyone these days is a fiction writer.

In the past, if you wanted to get inside the head of a terrorist or a stay-at-home mom (god knows why these two life paths are linked in my mind), you’d go and read a Hilary Mantel or an Elizabeth Jane Howard or an Updike, or whatever. People read to get inside the heads of other people. They had, still have, an insatiable desire to do that – call it escapism or people readingprurient voyeurism or just plain intellectual curiosity. But it’s still being done, just not through reading books.

One goes to Facebook or Twitter or reads a blog.  Plus, there’s the added frisson that the Facebook feeds or blogs are actually true. Naturally, and this is not an original point, they’re not. They are performance art, constructions of how people want to be seen – with a sprinkling of truth. Online, endless characters parade past you. You can get into the head of anybody!

You want to know what it’s like to have a passionate S&M affair? In the past, you had to try and search for it in a bookshop or a library. And you needed luck or some knowledge to come across something like Jenny Diski’s Nothing Natural. (Who would have thought Diski would have written a book like that?** Certainly not me.) I’m only mentioning it here because it’s the latest book I’ve read. But far easier, these day, just go and find a million blogs – perhaps I exaggerate – outlining the same material; and, fascinatingly, they profess to be true.

It’s not that nobody is reading. Everybody is reading. And, worse or better, depending on your perspective, everybody is an author. No wonder nobody is buying books.

*Clickbait title. Yeah. Yeah. That wasn’t right of me.

** Upon its release, the book received some backlash. Anthony Thwaite, a literary critic, referred to it as the “most revolting book I’ve ever read”.

Unconventional Families

Next week, excitingly, terrifyingly, I will be interviewing three fantastic authors – Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), Gareth Crocker (The Last Road Trip) and Finuala Dowling (The Fetch) for Open Book on the topic, Unconventional Families. Aren’t all families unconventional or don’t they all believe that they are? adams family

Of course, Tolstoy. I won’t get away without mentioning Tolstoy.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.‘ –  Leo Tolstoy

Is this true? I don’t think so. I’d put it the other way around. Tolstoy and I could come to blows on this matter. Unhappy families share similarities. There is almost always a person ‘causing all the problems’. Were it not for that person everyone would be happy, or so the family members claim. Of course this is not true: the family is a system: each part a perfect response to the others. Psychological research, that oxymoron, says that there are two common ways for families to be unhappy: disengagement or enmeshment.

Then what makes a  family happy? Now that’s a question worth answering.

But I won’t be answering it. Instead, I will be questioning these authors with the understanding that there are three overlapping families in operation here: their family of origin (why else do we read, and eventually write, but to escape our family of origin?), their current family (in whatever form) and the fictional families created in their novels. The biggest perk of being a writer is that you can make up families. In what other job can you do this? Normally you’re stuck with what you’ve got but not so when you write. You can make up the best mother in the world or the most terrible child ever. Ask Lionel Shriver about Kevin.

Come along next Thursday to the Book Lounge if you want to talk about unconventional families.