Tonight I was fortunate enough to go to a performance by Neil Gaiman who was reading his latest book, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. It was held in Edinburgh’s wonderful Usher Hall, and from what I could tell, it was completely sold out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the publishing industry lately (as every author has been) and the show tonight brought home to me something that I’ve been noticing in all of the chatter, and that is that there are many writing fashions that are quickly falling — but not as quickly as the ones that are rising — but also that the pure and eternal element of story is still intact and as vital as ever; vital in the sense that it is alive, aware, and powerful.
Mr Gaiman shared his stage with a very excellent Australian string quartet called FourPlay, who were able to make four instruments sound like sixteen. With the artwork of Eddie Campbell projected on a screen, FourPlay and were endlessly inventive in creating background moods, sounds, tones, and melodies to accompany the main reading, although they also performed their own work, and on two occasions backed Mr Gaiman as he sung — something I personally was not aware that he did, and I was impressed that he did it well. There were two short stories read, as well as the advertised novella which is a wonderful shell game of morality, thwarting the reader’s (listener’s) predictions as to exactly what kind of moral tale it is.
It was a wonderful evening, and all of it raised mixed emotions in me. On a very selfish level, I was wondering if this is what it took now for authors to hack it in the industry. Was it not enough to only write a book, but were we all now required to go on the road and find new ways to promote it? To bring it to our audiences in person? And not only that, but to now be expected to sing?
If you’ve ever got to know an author personally, you know what a big ask that is. It isn’t that authors aren’t entertaining — we can very easily be the life of the party. It’s just that we are so rarely at parties. The reason that we become writers is because we enjoy being by ourselves just about all of the time. We hide, we close the door in secret. We work at night, we don’t have many friends because we just don’t have the time to invest in them. Sometimes we even change our names so it’s harder to find us. We’re the ones that sit at the back and watch. We shake your hand but do not look you in the eye. We make notes, go away to our rooms or garrets or sheds, and then a week or two later slide some pages under the door and ask for a cup of tea.
That’s what the life of the novelist has looked like for the last hundred years. Yes, there have been exceptions. There have been unabashedly shameless self-promoters, but there are also just as many authors who are so obscure, it’s possible that not even their editors knew who they were. Remind me to tell you about B. Traven some time, and is there anyone for a round of Who Wrote Shakespeare? Yet, tragically, it is not overstating the matter to say that the modern novelist, as we know it, is exiting our realm, just like the ghostly procession of Elves in The Fellowship of the Ring. We are going into the West, not to be seen again. The financial system will no longer support us. The advance for first time writers is below the poverty line. If we were being beaten out of every civilised country with clubs, that would not be more effective. Yes, the professional writer is going — your curse is to be left only with the amateur writers.
That said, if we take an even wider perspective, if we back up so we can see a few more thousand years at a glance, we can see that the professional novelist is something of an irregularity. Throughout history there has been a constant mode of delivering story, and that is through a dedicated individual who would travel from village to village, town to town, hall to hall, and perform long ballads, short poems, usually to his own musical accompaniment. These people were called bards, or skalds, or seanchaidhthe, or rhapsodes, or any other number of formal and respected titles. They would perform existing works, or they would perform their own material. Never were they not expected to do so. All of the greats performed their own material Homer, Taliesin, King David, Shakespeare, Dickens… it was unquestioned, it was a part of the drive of storytelling itself — to tell stories to a live and immediate audience. By a quirk of technology, it has been cost effective for storytelling to be abstracted, and perhaps it’s best that that is no longer the case. Just as musicians are having to turn back to playing before live audiences for their bread, it is perhaps now the time for writers to likewise step up and join the ranks of our artistic ancestors. We should not think of readers anymore, we should think of listeners.
And the performance tonight was a playbook of how to operate such a model. It was, by turns, comforting, provoking, tear-jerking, disturbing, thrilling, and humorous. And it was so successful because Gaiman (et al,) has a foundational understanding of what storytelling is, which he showed by the short story he read The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury. It is something that is extremely easy to forget when you are sitting on your own in a room with a stack of paper. Storytelling is not about the teller, it is not about the caftsman, or even the craft. It is about the listener, and the use that the listener can put the stories to, to help, to heal, to warn, or to delight.