An all-too-rare occurrence came to pass this morning. I read Victoria Coren’s Observer Column. I say all-too-rare partly because she does not write them quite every Sunday, but mainly because I am far too lazy to read them regularly. On this rare occasion, I was struck in a way that made me want to read back through her other work. This was to see how much of my stuff she had nicked ahem overlapped with.
I hesitate at this point, not because of the libel suit that is no doubt heading in my direction, but because she has done something that I want to do. I want to write in a way that makes people read more of my stuff. It seems reasonable to suppose that Miss Coren has not contrived to make people read her back-catalogue to research possible plagiarism, but something is going right nevertheless: she writes for a national newspaper and I do not. I write for a few different things, some of which I am paid for, many of which I am not. The text you are reading is on a website that would not be here if I had not organised and coughed up for it.
The notion of wanting people to enjoy reading what one writes seems more fun, and more informative, than writing to persuade, or indoctrinate, or, as a piece of personal cathartic therapy. It is also a much better positive re-enforcement than any other reason – watching someone laugh at a joke you have put in an article is great. Better still if they do not know whom you are, or know you have seen them.
This business of having work published is made of two halves. First, you have two write something that someone else (an editor) thinks is good enough and right for a publication. Second, that publication has to be read. How do you do this? ‘Write well’ is an obvious thing in general, but one has to stand out from others. One can be sensationalist, insightful, funny, or the cheapest of the lot, just mention naughty words to get attention. For attention alone, it has got to be something that if used ordinarily is deeply offensive and racist like nigger or wog, as piss and fuck and bollocks just do not work any more. At least that is what my agent tells me.
In reality, Miss Coren has not stolen anything of mine at all. I have written about eating meat, and even managed to get both cannibalism and vegetarianism into one piece. Equally, however, I have never written about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, farming puppies, or eating a pet cat. (Is that enough for the lawyers? Probably not. At least a lawsuit will give me something to do alongside, you know, Science).
A second reason why I lay no claim to being behind what she wrote is that it was obviously wrong. Well, sort of. What she wrote was sort-of twisted and weird, and a bit negative in that way Guardian columnists do. I stress the phrase “what she wrote was wrong” and avoid saying “she was wrong”. There is a distinction between a writer and their work. Of course it could be that she really does think that what she wrote is true, and that when Hugh F-W flash-fries puppy haunches on BBC two she (or more likely her brother) will be there to gobble it down approvingly. However, what I think is more likely is that this highly intelligent, experienced, Oxford-educated writer, has her audience nailed. It is not just Guardian columnists that write in that sort of way, it applies to the feature writers and journalists at that paper as well. This facility on her part should come as no surprise. The paper is a product to be sold. The proprietors want their columnists to write what fits into that sort of mould.
That statement sounds rather like it pigeon-holes her work, but as she has written for several other papers during her career, including the Guardian’s arch nemesis, The Telegraph, such compartmentalisation would be flawed. She has to write for an audience. It sounds obvious and easy but it is a far cry from many writers. I once went to a literary event at Foyles at which Nicola Morgan gave a talk/marketing-do for her new book about how to be a publishable writer. The questions session afterwards started with an articulate-sounding man who asked how he could deal with negative feedback about his work without killing the person it came from. This is, needless to say, a far cry from someone like V. C. who holds down a regular column in a national newspaper and writes books. I suppose the annoying thing for the rest of us is, does she have to be quite so good at it?
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