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Joanna Kavenna

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We Have Nothing to Lose But Our USP!

Posted: 02/06/2012 14:34

I met a literary agent the other day. She told me that these days when you sell a novel to publishers, there has to be a USP. "A what?" I said. "'Unique Selling Point. You know, narrated by a hermaphrodite, or someone who has been repeatedly raped by their grandfather, that sort of thing. Or, vampires, but somewhere new. If they've been somewhere last time, they have to be somewhere else. So Vampires in Honolulu, that sort of thing." She wasn't condoning this, just reporting it. Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME? USP? One man thinks about his own life. "Boring," say the sales reps. "Well," says the nervous agent. "OK, well, there's a bit about a male brothel." The sales reps perk up a bit. "Where?" they say, flicking through Volume 1. "Erm no, not in that volume," says the agent. "Erm, actually it's in Volume 7." The meeting ends...

Another friend of mine went on a US book tour. He thought he was meant to be talking about ideas, why he wrote his book, what he was trying to say, that sort of thing...But then the marketing team explained it all to him. "The thing is," they said. "You have to shift a certain number of units each time you talk." (Units meaning books, by the way...) "200 units in Kentucky. Doesn't matter what you say. Just shift the units. 300 in Seattle." It wasn't about ideas, it was just about hard sell. Product. The one-liner, the USP.

Writers talking about books, while thinking about sales. Writers writing books while thinking about the USP...Is there any hope for the writer who isn't simultaneously auditioning for a part as Gordon Gekko in the WALL STREET drama of their life? What about ideas, or those thoughts and sentiments that are irreducible to a single phrase, to a USP? What about pure passionate experience and authorial truth? These are pertinent questions for writers and also for readers, who are being lied to by what I've described above - they are being told they are getting books and ideas when really they're just getting units and hard sell. Is there any hope for readers either?

A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from a man who said he was ringing from HOWTHELIGHTGETSIN, a festival in Hay. Not the main Hay Literary Festival, he added. A sort of alternative Hay. A few years ago a philosopher called Hilary Lawson set up a philosophy and music festival, to run at the same time as the Hay Literary Festival. There was an Art festival too, this man explained, in November, called CRUNCH. He wondered, did I want to talk about the city and the sublime? You know, is the city a rational paradise or the backdrop to our collective madness? The purpose? Well, it really seemed (sotto voce), the purpose was really, actually, to discuss whether the city is a rational paradise or the backdrop to our collective madness. Simply to discuss these ideas in front of an audience that was interested in the discussion of ideas.

I went along - to a small hill in the centre of Hay, bonfire-smoke drifting across the grass, tents fluttering in the wind. There was a strange atmosphere - an atmosphere of people who were - what was it? Gradually I began to perceive what it was - the speakers weren't spilling out some sales pitch, second-guessing the audience, wondering what they had to say to flog them books. They were speaking freely, and the audience was responding freely - it seemed almost everyone there even meant what she or he said - in tent after tent, hour by hour...It was anomalous and even inspiring...

The next year, I went to the CRUNCH festival as well, in November. I watched Raymond Tallis versus Jake Chapman on morality and art. "We are all termite breath," said Chapman, in black. "Nonsense," said Tallis. "Don't be so DAILY MAIL" said Chapman, still in black. Tallis nearly challenged him to a dual. I went to a very moving talk by Adrian Noble on Shakespeare's last plays. I listened to Stephen Frears and Bob and Roberta Smith, to Griselda Pollock, to Bracha Ettinger, saying whatever they liked, in whatever way they felt like saying it. I participated in a debate that genuinely had the title "Awake in the Universe" and that genuinely took place in a crowded auditorium. Next week, I'm heading off to HOWTHELIGHTGETSIN for the third time. I will get to see Rupert Sheldrake explaining why telepathy is scientifically proven and Hilary Lawson discussing reality and metaphor, and I will participate in discussions on Evil, Love, Death, the Environment, as well as the future of the Novel.

On the last, a brief preview. Does the novel have a future? Well - perhaps it depends on our definition of the novel. The novel in its "unit" form, of course I expect they'll keep flogging that. Unit after unit. But I mean the novel as a form in which writers communicate some sort of quiet, individual truth, to those readers who want to listen. The question might be posed a different way. Do they think ordinary people are fools? "Ordinary people" meaning those without extraordinary power to direct the course of events, people in general - all of us who are patronised and manoeuvred by infrastructures, power groups, told to behave like eaters, consumers, buyers, nothing else. Yet, we ordinary people live in an unknowable universe, we are aware of the madness and perplexity and beauty of our brief moment in Time. We think and breathe and feel and love. And perhaps we read to know others, to experience the innermost thoughts of other unique, finite people as they lived their brief moment in Time as well. Why have Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain or D. H. Lawrence continued to delight and console? Because they pandered to some sales rep? Or because they spilled out crazy-beautiful-mystifying life as they saw it, as honestly as they could?

Albert Camus wrote that, "the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds." So yes, I think the novel of free, imaginative expression has a future too. So long as there are still forums for genuine debate, for things that are said because someone believes they are the truth - and for no other reason...Then the business of being a writer becomes less tawdry, and the business of being a reader becomes less like being fed words blended by some conglomerate of sales reps, to appeal to what they think of as the "ordinary person." Who doesn't really exist anyway! We need more forums like HOWTHELIGHTGETSIN, more debates where people remain what they are and speak their minds. We have nothing to lose but our USP!

 
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