The Complete Package

My kids are addicted to The X Factor.

There, I’ve said it.

I tried, really I did. I fed them organic pieces of cardboard...sorry, rice cakes, I read them poetry. I even played Classic FM on the school run.

Alas, they now settle down each Saturday night with a packet of crisps and the remote control, discussing whether Cheryl Cole is the most beautiful woman on the planet and whether Simon Cowell waxes his hands.

Worse still, I have been sucked into my children’s world.

Yes, I am now an avid watcher of the darn show. I won’t say I’m a fan but must admit to an unseemly interest in the whole spectacle.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the constant commentary from the press and public as to which candidate is ‘the complete package.’
It transpires that it’s not enough that Joe McElderry sings like an angel. The guy will never make it, apparently, until someone fixes his teeth.
Similarly Stacey Solomon gains more column inches for her giggling than her undoubted talent for belting out a song. How, the public asks, will she ever give interviews when she’s clearly bonkers.

Have these people never heard of David Bowie or Kate Bush?

I must confess it makes me slightly uncomfortable, not least because this idea that an artist must be all things, ‘the complete package’, is gaining pace in the publishing world.
Nowadays, it’s simply not enough to pen a good story. A writer needs to be able to engage with radio DJs, write pithy features and lead creative workshops in schools and libraries. All of which require skills that may not be part of the average scribbler’s make-up.

I’m currently doing the publicity rounds for my latest novel and have been told, with indecent rubbing of hands, that I have a terrific back story.

‘You’re such an easy sell-in,’ said my PR gal.

Well, of course I’m pleased about that. And I actually enjoy chatting about work and craft. I’m naturally loud and opinionated and I have a terrific arse for radio.
I don’t even mind being asked for my views on being a working parent, or whether Olly Murs is the new Robbie. My commitment is to my book and I will do whatever it takes to help it reach an audience. And I’ll do it happily.

And yet...I do worry that the idea of being a personality is taking hold. And that like the poor contestants of The X Factor, being great at what you do will never be enough.

I worry that good writers won’t cut it because they couldn’t do the whole publicity thing.

A friend asked me today, why the hell I care, when I’m like a pig in the proverbial.
The answer, in truth, is I’m not sure.

Maybe I’m just being old fashioned.
But, you see, I love books and I love reading and I would hate to be dnied a fantastic author just because they needed a brace, or couldn’t dance.

Oh ignore me.
As my kids never tire of telling me, I’m just showing my age.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

So true, Helen. It's as if writers have to get hold of some of the magic dust of the celebrity memoir people. The one who always springs to mind for me is Marian Keyes - a fabulous writer, and a brilliant 'celebrity' who appears on everything from Big Brother's Little Brother to Strictly and is always entertaining.
I guess it's the branding thing.

emmadarwin said...

It is true, but I do know that publishers are aware that different writers suit different kinds of publicity, and are perfectly willing to live with that. I'm fine on a festival platform, but really can't do the kind of feature-writing or opinion piece which will get me under the nose of the half-a-million readers of Good Housekeeping. (Except about writing, about which I will write and spout happily for ever, but the market for that is more limited.) So be it. Yes, if you have someone with a fab backstory or ITV-friendly teeth, then that's great. But it's not essential.

And worth remembering, too, that you do see Marian Keyes being a delight on slebby things, but you don't see the writers who don't... but still sell perfectly well.

DT said...

It's interesting that you mention David Bowie and Kate Bush, both unique performers who may not have courted the media machine but who are both easy on the eye. Perhaps we need to figure out who we are as writers, and decide whether that's as important as figuring out what we write. Answers on a postcard - really, I could do with them. And forget rice cakes - corn cakes is where it's at!

Nicola Morgan said...

I sympathise with your discomfort but it's as Emma says, "It is true, but I do know that publishers are aware that different writers suit different kinds of publicity, and are perfectly willing to live with that." I remember very well when my first novel was about to be published, my publishers asked me in great detail what things I felt I did and didn't want to do publicity-wise, what I'd be comfortable with. If I'd said I didn't want to do anything, it might have been a problem, but all good publishers will "use" your talents or interesting aspects, and just ignore anything that wouldn't help your book sell. I don't think you should worry too much from a writer's pov - it really doesn't matter about our teeth or whatever, though I agree that it does (but it shouldn't) for people whose skills actually intrinsically demand that they are watched while doing their thing, which makes singing/acting different from writing. (Thank goodness!)

Helen Black said...

Yes, perhaps I'm worrying for nothing and that being good at PR is not essential.
Though of course it will help sell more books which in turn will get you another contract.
HB x

Administrator said...

Intriguing post. I think a lot more is expected of writers nowadays, when it comes to marketing their books - but then, why should they be different to any other artist? When i buy a painting or piece of music, i like to know a bit about the person behind it, and it's the same with books - i'm always disappointed when there isn't a photo of the author on the back cover. Not so that i can check if there teeth are straight, but so that i can make a connection.

Caroline Green said...

'i'm always disappointed when there isn't a photo of the author on the back cover. Not so that i can check if there teeth are straight, but so that i can make a connection.'

I absolutely second that, Sam.
Interesting post, Helen.
So who's going to win, then? [Oops, sorry...bringing X Factor chat into serious literary debate :)]

Gillian McDade said...

I always like to see a photo too - if Nicola Barker and Kate Morton hadn't had their pics on the inside cover, I probably wouldn't have read their books.

For the record, I don't watch the X-Factor!

Helen Black said...

I always look at the photo too, and I love to read the bios, and the ackowledgements.
HB x

Fionnuala said...

Everyone else has said such sensible things and I can only think 'Simon Cowell waxes his hands?'

Helen Black said...

Simon's hands are very big news!!!

DT said...

I'm intrigued now, Gillian. What was it about the photos of Nicola Barker and Kate Morton that was the dealbreaker on you reading their books? If that's a general view for readers I may have to geta stunt double when my novels finally hit the shelves!

Administrator said...

I'd better start saving, too, Derek - either that or get an airbrush...

Geraldine Ryan said...

Very observant children, Helen. I will be watching Simon's hands on Saturday. Much more interesting than the singing competition.

Good luck with the tour. I'd die if I had to do that!