Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Hubris and The Art of Good Behaviour - Lucy Coats

I read Amanda Craig's piece about author behaviour at festivals with great interest and a certain gloom. It's a really excellent article, and well-worth looking at.  Her sense of 'omerta' meant that no names were named, but it set me thinking: does this bad behaviour achieve anything except negative insider gossip, possible column inches and a reinforcement of the idea of the writer-as-hellraiser?  And is that the point of it all--ie that bad publicity and bad reputation is better than no publicity and a boring reputation? Personally, I would rather have the no-publicity or gossip and a reputation for boring old reliability than behave in some of the ways which Amanda describes--but then maybe I'm old-fashioned in my belief that if you are invited to speak to a literary festival audience (or anywhere else), you should have the manners to do the job in a polite and professional way when you get there. Otherwise, you should simply say no to the gig.

Amanda also says "The trouble is that to write anything at all requires a degree of arrogance, and to think that what you've written is publishable requires even more."  Perhaps this is true, but I prefer to call it self-belief, and I am going to go even further out on a limb here, and say that in my experience, children's authors are not, as a general rule, an arrogant bunch.  This may be because--despite the Rowlings and Pullmans of our world who are the exceptions rather than the rule (and who are both, by the way, incredibly polite and professional)--writers for children don't generally get the slavish press praise and adulation which is heaped on many bestselling writers for adults. This is not a whinge, it is a fact.  Children's books are still seen as 'not proper writing' by some.  In my own recent (very recent) past, I was asked about how I was doing with my books by a medical professional who was treating me. When I told him that I'd had 12 books out this year, he merely said, "Oh.  And when are you going to write a real book, then?"  What he meant was an adult book.  Nowadays, I don't suffer that kind of thing gladly, so you may be pleased to hear that I let rip, and told him exactly what I thought of his comment.  He was very taken aback.  My point is, many of us are subjected to this kind of attitude on a regular basis, and it is the biggest eroder of self-belief (or indeed arrogance) there is to realise that writing a book for the children's market seems to be not nearly as big a deal as writing one for 'grown-ups'.  This despite the fact that some of the best writing there is today is done for young people. 

But back to the "bad author behaviour"....  When I did my Cheltenham Festival event last week, a whole school party crept in 20 minutes late (about which I had been warned, and was fine).  The festival organisers asked, rather tentatively, if I would mind talking to the children afterwards.  I said 'yes, of course,' and didn't think anything more of it--it wasn't their fault that they were late.  We then had a fantastic 20 minutes together in the back of the bookshop after my signing session.  The kids were all well-prepared, asked intelligent questions and were generally a delight to chat to.  It was only afterwards that it was borne in to me that there had been considerable trepidation about my reaction to asking me to do 'extra'. My question is this: why wouldn't I?  These kids are my audience.  They buy my books.  What did it cost me?  Nothing.  What did it gain me? A lot of goodwill, plus 25 kids who will remember their 'special author talk' for a long time (I hope), and want to explore more of my Greek myths.  Being a prima donna diva would have gained me nothing except bad feeling all round--and that's why I can't understand any author who would disrespect their audience by being publicly rude or contrary or ridiculously demanding out-of season roses and gold-dusted chocolates and water from the backside of the world.  To hell with it--I'd rather wither in an obscurity of good manners than invite the attentions of Nemesis by being so horribly out of touch with reality as that.


catdownunder said...

I once took a group of children to meet an author. He was incredibly professional (and treated them to tea and biscuits in the staff room of the educational institution he also ran). It is years and years since the event - their own children go to school now - and if I happen to see one of those now grown up children I almost always hear, "Remember when..." - and they all love reading.

Stroppy Author said...

A polite and generous author visit/talk has a huge and lasting effect on children. My Big Bint remembers Nicholas Allen visiting her nursery when she was 3 or 4; I remember Ted Hughes visiting my secondary school and generously enduring everyone's (probably awful) poems with incredible tact and generosity. If either of these people had been rude, we would have forgotten their work and - if we remembered the visit at all - it would only be to recall how awful their behaviour was. It can only be counter productive.

I'm sure, Lucy, that your appearance will be long-remembered with fondness and pleasure, and will be bound up in the kids' enjoyment of Greek myths for many years to come.

Susie Day said...

At my last school visit they were very apologetic about asking me to take a small part of the lunch hour to do a signing, as if that was a huge imposition and not a lovely opportunity to meet readers and leave them with something extra to remember the day by (not to mention part of what they were paying me for). I assume like your festival lot they'd encountered a 'no chance, I am eating my sarnies' response in the past.

Sounds like your late group had a blast. Hurrah for good manners!

Linda Strachan said...

I can't really understand why authors are bad mannered or arrogant at festivals or anywhere else.
Surely is it just unprofessional behaviour which is unacceptable anywhere, so why should an author get away with it. Have they been watching too many celeb programmes on TV and have an overblown idea of their own importance?
If you are asked to meet your readers and are getting paid for it then I feel you have an obligation be polite -at the very least. But besides that why would you want to be snotty to people who have paid their hard earned money to come and listen to what you have to say and hopefully buy your book?

I agree that most children's authors are tend to be less arrogant but perhaps that is because when you go into school to speak to children they will very quickly flatten any oversized ego. They are quite happy to tell you to your face if they don't like your book.

Going into schools and speaking at festivals or other events can be exhausting especially if you are travelling a lot but if it is too much you can always say no, so why take it out on the very people you need to keep on your side - your readers and the event organisers?
Although they say no publicity is bad publicity - remember what being arrogant did to that chap who had the jewellery empire which crashed overnight because of one arrogant comment!

Lucy Coats said...

Ah yes, Linda. God forbid any of us should have a Ratner moment!

Julie Day said...

I agree, why expect you to react with trepidation when as you say, these children are your audience and read your books. They are sure to remember the talk with you after the event than the original event I think.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I still remember writing to Alan Garner, when I was a child - well, a very early teen - and getting a rude letter in response. I still admire his books, but it definitely coloured the way I feel about him and knocked my fragile adolescent confidence a bit as well! But it's something I always recall when somebody approaches me, no matter how tired, stressed or tetchy I might be feeling - you have to smile, be nice and get on with it! Besides, if you do, it usually lifts your own spirits as well.

Ellen Renner said...

Thanks for a great post, Lucy. I agree that most children's writers are lovely and unpretentious. I have only met a few with ego problems, which I tend to put down to insecurity.
I'm very much of your school: you should leave your ego at home when meeting the children who are your readers. They're the important ones: not you. Without their imaginations, your books have no life.

Ali Mal said...

A very famous author was once spectacularly rude to me for absolutely no reason. Not only have I never bught any of their books again but I never loose an opportunity to tell the tale. Nice never hurts :)