Archive for November, 2009

gang!

Posted by on November 11th, 2009

I wasn’t going to do this, but hey – I’m bored, you’re probably bored (why else would you be here?), we’re all bored. And it was a sad day, in terms of another blog post by another writer, which we’ll get to in a minute. So I’m going to do it after all. Hang onto your hats.

I started thinking about the Curzon Group again yesterday. To be clear, I thought about them a bit when they formed, and then I’ve thought about them sporadically in the time since. Most of the time when my idle mind turned to them, the thoughts it had were generally derisory but had no real malice. And that’s still the case. I don’t dislike these people, because I don’t know them. And I don’t dislike their books, because I haven’t read them. Individually, all things being equal, I wish them well.

Collectively, however, I do have a slight problem.

Before we start, I don’t have any problem at all with writers banding together. There are loads of groups, collectives and ‘squads’ out there, and I can see how it makes total sense. Most of us don’t get very much, if anything, in the way of a publicity budget – paradoxically, the bulk of that money tends to go to the sure-fire writers who’ll make the bestseller list regardless. It’s one of the odd facts about the publishing industry you learn very quickly. Similarly, you can buy new titles from well-known authors for around £8.99 in hardback, whereas – to sample an unknown like me – you’d need to shell out upwards of £18.99. Faced with that choice, I know how you’d spend your money, and – frankly – I don’t blame you. The explanation is simple: that well-known author will sell many copies anyway, so his or her book can be priced more cheaply (and therefore becomes more appealing to an impulse purchaser). As Kurt Vonnegut would say: so it goes. But in such a climate, it makes total sense for authors to promote themselves as heavily as they can, and if you group together you can do that more efficiently: an event with five mid-list authors is going to be far more appealing to organisers than five separate events with one author each. And so on. These days, even best-selling authors often do events together. I get it. It’s sensible. It’s fine.

And it also fits in with something you’ll often hear said at crime writing festivals. “Crime writers are like a gang”. I can’t remember who coined it. Mark Billingham? Ian Rankin? Whoever, it’s an appealing image. However much the noir crowd might dislike the generic, formulaic serial killer books, or the fainter-hearted might dislike the violent stuff, or people who actually write their own books might have a pop at the James Patterson brand, or the way everyone hates the much-maligned-but-rarely-actually-ever-seen cat mysteries – we’re all ultimately in it together. There’s a communal atmosphere at crime fiction festivals. We all get on. We even tolerate the people who don’t drink.

So why is the Curzon Group different? Why does it annoy me? Simply because, as it was originally formulated, it flies in the face of all that. Actually, I’ll go further. It pisses in the face of all that. Their website is here. Their blog is here. On the face of it, you’ll notice no obvious piss, but some history is required. The Group was started by the top three writers listed on their website, based on the mission statement you can still find on the site. It says this:

From Wilkie Collins to John Buchan, Eric Ambler to Hammond Innes, Ian Fleming to Alistair MacLean, and from Len Deighton to Frederick Forsyth, the British thriller is one of the richest traditions in world literature.

But in the last decade the British thriller has fallen into a sad decline. The market has been colonised by production line American thriller writers.

… likes of James Patterson, Dan Brown and John Grisham have taken over the market.

The Curzon Group is dedicated to reviving the traditions of Buchan, Fleming, MacLean and Forsyth, bringing the British thriller bursting back to life in the twenty-first century. Formed by Matt Lynn, the author of the military thriller ‘Death Force’: Martin Baker, the author of the financial thriller ‘Meltdown’: Alan Clements, the author of the political thriller ‘Rogue Nation, The Curzon Group is dedicated to Five Principles:

1.    That the first duty of any book is to entertain.
2.    That a book should reflect the world around it.
3.    That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.
4.    That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.
5.    That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

At its best, British thriller writing combined pace, humour, drama and insight to create stories that were of their moment yet timeless: that could capture a snapshot of history, yet could keep reader awake for half the night. Through competitions, promotions, publicity, talks, and, most of all, through our own writing, The Curzon Group is dedicated to restoring its finest traditions.

Do you see my problem? Well, maybe not. It’s not that they were promoting themselves – with the initial patronage of perjurer and all-round fucking scumbag Jeffrey Archer – but that they were doing so at the expense of other writers. They were going to ‘save’ the British thriller – as though it was ever in decline – from the invasion of allegedly crap US-style writers, which you, the great British public, were either stupid or brain-washed enough to buy. From the beginning, it was very transparently a marketing strategy that had nothing to do with quality – or even those five ‘principles’, which any writer worth his or her salt would endorse, but which, looking at some of the titles and descriptions, you might wonder whether the Curzon Group itself actually does. Because they don’t look that fucking different or exceptional to me.

Anyway. You’ll notice the website now lists eight members of the Curzon Group. And two more have joined: Zoe Sharp and Elizabeth Corley. I quietly weep. Yet the whole enterprise becomes ever more transparently ridiculous. Who else will join? Is there a limit? What would happen if Simon Kernick or Lee Child requested to join? They’re both best-selling British thriller writers, after all. Would they be welcomed in the Curzon Group’s quest to save British thriller-writing from … well, ultimately their own writing? It’s tedious to point this out again, but – just for clarity – I have nothing against the individual writers here – just the mission statement they’ve drawn themselves together under. Saving British thriller writing: by replacing what’s popular, and which apparently is shit, with – well, themselves.

Today, the crime writer Declan Burke wrote a moving piece on his blog, Crime Always Pays. Declan is the author of two great crime novels. But – rather than ever solely promoting himself – he’s used his blog to promote the best of Irish crime writing (and beyond: he also included an interview with me). Scroll through his site, and you’ll find the same thing, time after time: the promotion of other writers; discussion, disagreement; but never a real hint of overt negativity when someone else succeeds  – because it’s not about that, is it? Or it shouldn’t be anyway. Quite the opposite. And yet, as you’ll see when you read that piece, he literally can’t afford to write anymore, not even in his spare time.

So I guess my current thought is this: when people like Declan, along with other great writers like, say, Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie, are storming the bestseller charts, maybe then I’ll start worrying about the plight of certain self-promoting writers bleating about the state of the industry. Whose fucking books can be found on the shelves in Asda.

Okay?

Okay.

… and relax.