Bibliodiversity, Competition and Charismatic Megafauna

Will Essays 2 Comments

Tomorrow is the UK launch event for my novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre[/amazon_link]; and I’m delighted to be launching it alongside my good friends, Jonathan Taylor, Maria Taylor and Simon Perril, who are all launching books of their own (Jonathan’s [amazon_link id=”1907773274″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Entertaining Strangers[/amazon_link], Maria’s [amazon_link id=”0957098456″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Melanchrini[/amazon_link] and Simon’s Newton’s Splinter — excellent books all!). It is at times like this that I realise how fortunate I am to work with a bunch of fellow writers who are as talented as they are generous; and it will be a delight to be launching the books en masse, and turning the book launch into a collective celebration.

Yesterday, in the lead up to the launch, I was interviewed by the lovely people at DemonFM about my book and about the launch, and they asked me an intriguing question that I’d never been asked before: what about the fierce competition that exists between writers? How do I deal with it? After all, why launch your book alongside your competitors? For a moment, I was not sure what to say; and the reason I was not sure what to say was in part that I think competition is greatly over-rated. The business-world article of faith that competition drives “excellence” is, at best, only a dangerously small part of the story and, at worst, simple nonsense. Competition is often depicted as the primary engine of all that is good in the world, but this is a view that can only be sustained if we imagine that the world is structured in terms of a single hierarchy of excellence. However, when it comes to writing (and to many other things), it is clear that this single hierarchy simply doesn’t exist. Writing is not one, but instead many things. It makes sense to see literature less like a Great Chain of Being (with Shakespeare close to the top and Barbara Cartland somewhere near the bottom), and more like a rich ecological system made up of countless niches. Writing well, I think, is not so much about clambering up some abstract ladder of greatness and influence, as it is about creatively making the most of one or another ecological niche within the great jungle of literary possibility.

It’s easy to get caught up in a kind of spellbound admiration of the charismatic megafauna of the literary world: Don DeLillo, or J.K. Rowling, or Jonathan Safran Foer, or Margaret Atwood. But whilst these behemoths stride through the jungles of the literary world, there are plenty more writers, who to my mind are as interesting if not more interesting, scurrying around in the undergrowth, going about their business, exploring now this, now that, producing books and poems and stories. They are often a bit more reclusive, a bit harder to spot, less easy to catch on camera; but they are also more numerous, and are well worth the patience it takes to track them down. And so, whilst I have nothing against charismatic megafauna, these days I am often as fascinated, if not more, by the mesofauna and microfauna of the literary world, by those people producing beautiful and strange little books in tiny editions, books that most of us will never have heard of, poets crafting lovely, startling lines tucked away in small, beautifully-formed pamphlets, all of this sheer, seething life that makes up the greatest proportion of the bibilodiversity in the jungle of literature. And what you realise when you become aware of this sheer diversity is that most writers, most of the time, exist happily alongside each other. Sometimes they ignore each other. Sometimes they exist in contented symbiosis. Sometimes they stray into each other’s territories and there are little scuffles: but these generally don’t lead to the loss of much other than a bit of fur and dignity. Most of the time, the jungle is peaceable.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough to spend much of my time in this more or less peaceable jungle, sometimes I glance at other writers shambling past, and gaze upon their books, and find that I am filled with admiration. So I read them, and take delight in them, and hope to learn from them. But I also know, ultimately, that I cannot write what they write, and they cannot write what I write, because we inhabit different niches. So I get on writing what I write, because I am not certain that I could have chosen otherwise, because I am aware that I write out of impulses and thoughts over which I have little control, out of commitments that are mine without ever having signed up to them. And it is in this environment of relative freedom from competition, this network of peaceable relationships, friendships and mutual indifferences, that a rich bibliodiversity—and thus a richness of word, thought and image—can be guarded, maintained, and can be encouraged to flourish.

So all of this is why, tomorrow, I am delighted to be launching my book alongside the magnificent work of such good and talented and diverse writer friends. We are four very different writers; our books are four very different books. The sheer difference of the books that we are launching is, for me at least, a cause for celebration. It is a pleasure and an honour to be celebrating this mass launch together. Long live bibliodiversity!

[If you want to come to the launch, the details are here].

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Comments 2

  1. I’m sure I posted a comment here, but I can’t remember what it was now. I wish commenting were more “free” because if it depends on moderator approval, and the level of comment which garners your approval is too high, then it makes me less inclined to post comments that might disappear into the ether. *unless they are just to send you a personal message, which is what this comment is intended for, so please delete, and do as you please, but just wanted to leave the feedback. Thanks!

    1. Post

      Hi, Karmice, Apologies. I think I may have an overzealous spam filter. I automatically approve all comments that are in response to my posts as long as they are at least not actively unfriendly, or else wilfully beside the point: so the disappearing into the ether is by no means a matter of my moderating you out of existence. It is instead more a case that you probably fell (due to the excess of zeal on the part of my badly-behaved spam-robot) into my spam box, and I didn’t spot your comment when I was skimming through my spam before deleting. I’ll see if I can find a more efficient way of of dealing with spam, so that legitimate commenters, like yourself, don’t find yourselves disappearing into nothingness…

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