Debut novelist Matthew Blakstad on the joy of NOT fitting in when it comes to publishing, and how not all novels fit a mould — some are meant to break them
‘Nothing odd will do long…’ said Doctor Johnson; and you might think this a point well made, except that he went on to say, ‘…Tristram Shandy did not last.’
Because contrary to the good doctor’s words, Lawrence Sterne’s loopy, fractured masterpiece Tristram Shandy went on to prove itself one of history’s great slow-burners. Over the years, we’ve come to recognise its brilliance, profundity and wit, and it’s now seen as one of the defining works of the novel form. It had intertextual play and formal experiment down pat a couple of centuries before the sixties’ avant-garde came along and ‘invented’ them.
Colours to the mast, I love Tristram Shandy. As a reader, I’ve always gravitated to books that achieve such feats of genre-bending originality, that maintain a playfulness and formal dexterity while saying something profound about the world. And as Tristram Shandy proves, quirky doesn’t always equal niche. Vernon God Little; American Gods; Infinite Jest: some of the great popular successes of contemporary publishing, too, have defied categorisation. Which is why it’s a shame that publishing – like music, movies or any other creative industry – is so concerned with categories. It’s easy to see why: publishing is a market like any other. It’s easier and lower-risk to sell a book if you can position it as a little bit like that other book that did so well last season. In a market like this, you can to a large extent judge a book by its cover, because covers are designed to signal to buyers all the other books this particular book is like.
When I started the Writing a Novel course at Faber Academy, I knew all this in principle but hadn’t taken on board what it meant for my own work. I’d started writing my novel, Sockpuppet, just as the course began – though at the time it was titled Lobster-pot. (Don’t ask.) Like most of us when we’re starting out, I had strong but unformed ideas about where the book would go and what it was going to say; but no idea how I was going to get it there. Into this swirling cauldron of ideas I tossed a hodge-podge of ingredients: online chatter, political satire, thriller elements, flashes of 20th century history. Nothing went in for the sake of it. Everything was there for a reason. Everything was meant. But I didn’t at first know how it all would fit together.
Yet gradually a form and a style took shape, and a narrative emerged. It turned out to be a pacy story about a political scandal that breaks on social media, and of the hunt for sic_girl, a blogger who’s dishing the dirt on a government minister. Which hunt is made more difficult by the fact that sic_girl doesn’t exist. She’s a chat-bot, created by a maverick software developer. This story gave me the opportunity to say things I found important and urgent: about how digital culture is shifting our sense of identity, eroding our privacy. The central metaphor of an artificial voice wreaking harm on the real world felt rich and resonant and I was enjoying seeing it play out through the narrative.
In the peer review sessions that are the linchpin of the FA course, nobody at any point asked me, ‘What genre is this?’ or ‘What other books is this like?’ And I wouldn’t have know how to answer if they had. They simply responded to the work: directly, honestly and constructively. Their feedback gave me the confidence to continue and their criticism lent me the clarity to make the novel better.
I only began to think about genre and categories when a Notable Writer of Literary Fiction, who shall remain nameless, spoke to my group in one of our all-day Saturday sessions. I should say to anyone considering this course that these sessions are incredibly valuable. They bring the students face-to-face with published authors, agents and publishers, and they provide real insight into the industry. They’re generally extremely positive and constructive. This fellow, though, I found most helpful because of some things he said that I found purely negative.
Because in his view, writing fell into two camps. There was proper literature – Literary Fiction, with leading caps – which was written and read with serious intent. And there was the other stuff, genre writing, which was not serious, and whose readers were looking for some form of high-fructose escape from their own frontal lobes. Suffice to say, I took the NW of LF up on this assertion. I cited the writers whose work I listed in paragraph four of this blog post. I said the most interesting writing I’d read of late was toying with genre elements, was playful, but was absolutely serious of purpose.
As you might expect, NWoLF was non-plussed by my questions, and perhaps not least by the implied assertion that his own work didn’t feature among the texts I found interesting – which was in fact the case. But I have to thank NW, for helping me realise that my book was a genre work, as well as a literary one – and that this is why I cared so much about this debate. And woe betide anyone who told me that because my book was genre fiction, it wasn’t serious.
“…my book was a genre work, as well as a literary one – and this is why I cared so much about this debate. And woe betide anyone who told me that because my book was genre fiction, it wasn’t serious.”
So I continued to write.
Fast forward to my next encounter with publishing categories. This came when I started sending Sockpuppet out to agents. I got a lot of favourable responses – to the writing, the themes, the characters and pace – but still, I was getting ‘no’s. Where the agents were good enough to give me feedback (and by the way, I would absolutely not assume that an overworked agent with a slush pile they can barely see around, will give you anything but a generic ‘no’ when they reject your MS – why would they?) – when they did feed back, these agents all said roughly the same thing. Something that’s best summed up by this one response:
‘My main difficulty was in seeing where I could position it within publishing’s internal marketplace.’
My book, I was being told, was too genre for a literary market and too literary for a genre market. I started to think I’d written something that simply didn’t fit an available mould.
Yet when, in March this year, I was picked up by Cathryn Summerhayes at the agency WME, she responded immediately and unequivocally to the book. She recognised that it sat a little to one side of established categories but she saw that as a strength, not a weakness. And when in April she successfully sold the book, in a two-book deal to Anne Perry at Hodder & Stoughton, it turned out that Anne, too, was excited by the book precisely because it hovers somewhere between mainstream and genre fiction. Over the last few years, Anne has been building a stable of terrific writers – including Sarah Lotz, Lavie Tidhar and James P Smythe – that she’s successfully promoted to both genre and mainstream audiences. The very things that made my book hard for others to place were the things that made Anne see a good fit with her existing list. Now the edit is all but done, and she’s helped me make Sockpuppet so much better a book, I couldn’t be happier to be with her.
I asked Anne recently what genre she things Sockpuppet falls into. She tells me it’s a ‘crossover thriller with near-future SF elements’. Which works for me; though suffice to say we’re not going to put that in the cover blurb.
So my advice to anyone who’s writing the book they need to write, rather than the book they think will fit an established mould – to anyone who’s worrying about whether their book will find an outlet in a market that’s so focussed on categories and sub-categories of categories – is to quote Faber Academy course director Richard Skinner, and the words he used at the end of every peer review session on the course:
‘Well done. Keep going.’
Matthew’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.
He is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.