Monday, 28 October 2013

The Tragedy of the Book Soundtrack - by Clémentine Beauvais

Being of a sarcastic disposition, I'd spent the past few years secretly laughing at the very fashionable trend of writing 'soundtracks' for novels. I'd discovered the concept with Stephenie Meyer (though I know it had been around for a while before), who on her website had denounced Muse as the number one, well, muse, for her glittery vampires.

Since then, I'd seen it appear again and again on various author websites, and I'd done my own snarky theorisation of the emerging craze. A book soundtrack, I'd decided, is a bricolage of the following things:
  • Songs that the author really listened to when writing the book.
  • Songs that the author really listens to, but not necessarily when writing the book.
  • Songs that are more or less linked to the novel, and/or that characters of the novel listen to or identify with. 
  • Songs that the author would like us to believe s/he listens to, but which in fact s/he doesn't really care about, but which will add trendiness points to the book and sprinkle it with cool, whereas if the author really put in the songs that s/he actually listens to, it would be an eclectic mix of 1980s pop, teenage-unfriendly cheese, and classical music. 
(Being of a relatively cynical disposition, I sometimes reflected that the fourth bullet point was probably often the most accurate.)

Anyway, book soundtracks are generally made up of ten to fifteen songs, and they wait for you on the author website there - wait for you, the reader, to come and read them and... erm... do what with them exactly? 

This is a chin-scratchingly mysterious riddle. What am I supposed to do, o music-savvy author, with your violently fashionable soundtrack? Listen to it while reading the book? Listen to it before reading the book? After? Listen to bits of it here and there? Some soundtracks even state which chapter corresponds to which song, steady on, this is serious business. What do I do, listen to the thing on loop while reading the chapter? It's definitely going to become my favourite song that way (not). Anyway, I don't even like listening to music while I read. 

In short, I'd been absolutely snarky and completely blasé about the hilarious trend of book sountracks, and I would go 'pffsha!' and even 'pfff!' like a good French person everytime the ludicrous phenomenon was mentioned to me. 

(I hope I used enough foreshadowing for you to guess that this blog post is actually following the story arc of a classical tragedy and that my hubris regarding the dreaded thing is going to lead to my own personal catastrophe.)

Catastrophe struck a few weeks ago, when my (French) editor innocently emailed me the following, re: YA novel coming out in a few months' time:
Oh yes I'll also need your soundtrack asap please.
Er what?
All novels in this list have soundtracks at the beginning, with songs that have inspired the book, etc.
[I'd previously published with them but not in this specific YA list]

Ah ok well unfortunately I don't know any songs. In fact I don't know what a 'song' is. I think I vaguely heard someone talk about that concept once but I've forgotten what it means, and I've Googled it and nothing comes up. So I'm sorry but it's not going to be possible. 
Write that soundtrack.
Not today, I'm going snail-hunting.

Write it.
You know what, you do it and I'll credit you in the acknowledgements.  

O! How ironic Fate can be, who knits our destiny exactly as we wish she did not! Wouldst that she were less playful! I was plunged into an abyss of angst. Because I've been a bit dishonest with you. It's not just that I find book soundtracks perfectly ludicrous. It's also that I'm terribly jealous of people who can write them. Because I have a huge musical inferiority complex.

In short, I have a s*** taste in music.

There it is, I've said it. I have no musical taste to speak of. My iTunes library is a dreadful smorgasbord of the most shameful musical creations, or rather noise, from around the world. My worst nightmare is that it should ever get leaked online, condemning me to a life in exile with gouged-out eyes in the manner of another tragic hero whose problem was barely worse than mine.

Following this exchange, I spent three or four hours biting all my nails and thinking of possible solutions to this predicament:
  1. Ask my eighteen-year-old sister, who oozes trendiness and is completely made of cool, to write a soundtrack for the novel in exchange for my not mentioning her abundantly Facebook-documented booze nights to the parents. 
  2. Resort to the so-called 'undergrad strategy' of sending a corrupt file entitled 'soundtrack.doc' to my editor, and then pretending I'm not gettting any of his emails for two or three days despite being very conspicuously active on Twitter.
  3. Resort to the 'Simba' strategy of going away for most of the rest of my life, overstaying my welcome in the home of a smelly warthog and a hysterical meercat.
  4. Actually go through my iTunes library and see what I can salvage from the humiliating playlist.
Being of an honest disposition (as well as the aforementioned cynicism and sarcasm), I opted for the last one. I conscientiously went through my iTunes library with a fine-tooth comb, selecting only the socially acceptable songs. Unfortunately it was too fine and nothing came out, so I selected a slightly wider-toothed comb, and this time a dozen songs fell out, which I carefully packaged and sent off to my editor.

Oh. Ah. Right. Ah! Erm. Ok.
Told you. 
I think he wore mourning clothes for a week after that. But anyway, it's done - the lamest book soundtrack in history will soon be printed on the endpapers of my upcoming YA novel (and no, I'm certainly not posting it here). It is entirely possible that because of it, the publishing house will go bankrupt within two days and trigger inextinguishable fits of laughter throughout France in the process.

Meanwhile, I'm looking at you, author of books which cannot possibly be fully understood without a sountrack. Explain to me how you ever managed to reach that level of cool which I clearly can't attain, and why you do it - what dark hopes are woven into this exercise you clearly devote so much thought to, what we're supposed to do with the music, etc. And can I please hire you next time for this fearsome task.


Clementine Beauvais writes soundtrack-less books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter, for now, a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


Walter John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sue Bursztynski said...

I suspect the above "comment" is spam.

Dear me, book soundtracks! You're probably right to say that real ones woud be a mixture of stuff teenagers just don't enjoy. On the other hand, you never know what curiosity might do if a teen enjoys the book itself. Look at how many girls started looking for Bronte books after they read that Bella Swan liked them. ;-)

An Aussie writer called Caiseal Mor created his own CDs to go with his early books - he plays the Celtic harp and his fantasy novels had Celtic settings. Not quite the book soundtrack, but nice. And some cookbooks have accompanying CDs that put you in the mood for the kind of food they promote.

As a reader, I might enjoy listening to the music after I'd loved a book that mentioned the tunes.

Penny Dolan said...

A subject I've avoided even thinking about as the soundtrack idea makes it sound (ha ha!)as though the writing/book by itself isn't good enough to sell.

By the way, congratulations on your shortlisting for the Roald Dahl Funny prize.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Ha yes, that's what I sometimes think - 'well, if it makes readers discover good music, what's the problem?' (the problem being, of course, I don't have any good music to make them discover, but that's just me)

But the idea of creating your OWN book sountrack is much more awesome!

@Penny I think they would argue it's 'enhanced' by the soundtrack rather than the book being diminished by not having a sountrack... (but yes I agree with you). (re: RDFP unfortunately that's not the case as far as I'm aware :'-( )

Catherine Butler said...

I suspect the idea behind this fad for soundtracks is that books are just films manqué (or perhaps in potentia), or that teen readers won't be able to relate to anything that isn't sufficiently multimedia.

Be thankful you weren't asked to provide a scratch 'n' sniff card!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

haha! seeing what the book is about, that would be positively disgusting

Anonymous said...

Snail Hunting!! Sounds wonderful - I must participate in this activity!

Andrew Strong said...

I'm not sure I want to admit this here, but for my most recent, as yet unpublished, book, I created a playlist of songs for each character - most of them are musicians, but even those that aren't got their dedicated set. I liked the idea of a character's back story composed of the songs they loved or grew up with, but I certainly wouldn't want to do this routinely.