Sunday, May 5, 2013

Giving Novelists A Kick Start

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Zach Braff was in the news this week for raising over $2 million in less than five days to make the follow-up to his 1994 film, Garden State. What was unusual about this was the way the writer-actor-director went about it: he put up a request on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, explaining that he was reaching out for funds from the public rather than the Hollywood system in order to preserve control over the final product. He was inspired, he said, by the example of the makers of Veronica Mars, who had earlier acquired funds via the same source.

Upon reading this, I wondered whether any fledgling novelists had tapped the same channel  – after all, the one piece of advice they’re constantly given is not to give up the day job, as success in the profession is hard to come by and the pay is meagre. Had any of them used Kickstarter to give them, well, a kick start?

I checked, and it turns out that they have. Take Jack Cheng, for example, a designer and former advertising copywriter. “For the last three years, I've spent my nights and weekends working on a novel,” he writes. “Now I'm raising money to hire a professional editor and publish the book in a range of formats.” His novel, These Days, is described as the story of a guy who designs “fake computer interfaces for plastic prop displays in furniture showrooms” who meets a girl who doesn't own a cellphone. The last time I checked, Cheng had raised over $20,000, so there must be an audience for this sort of thing.

Not to be outdone, one G. D. Falksen has posted details of his magnum opus, called the Ouroboros Cycle, “an illustrated novel of vampires, werewolves, and paranormal adventure”. He needs money to pay for ads, social media management, promotional assistance, and other methods of “boosting the signal”, but so far has raised a little over $800. (Could the market for vampires be fading? One can only hope.) Doing slightly better at over $4,000 is a graphic novel entitled JFK Special Ops by Craig Frank, a thriller in which John F. Kennedy survives his assassination and decides to hunt down all those who were involved in the conspiracy. Hey, I’d read that.

From this limited sample it appears that so-called literary novelists – all those bespectacled wannabe Franzens in their garrets – have stayed away from crowdfunding. Which is understandable, and not because of aesthetic scruples. The best of such novels, after all, don’t rely on action and plot for their effects, but a distinctive take on the world, often expressed through close attention to characters and language. All of which is rather difficult to summarise and whip up excitement over, especially when one is in the middle of a first draft.

Imagine, for example, if you were a budding electronic patron of the arts and came across this on Kickstarter: “Hi, I’m Jimmy Joyce, formerly an English teacher at the Berlitz language school. I’m writing a sprawling work with a cyclical structure, using free association, puns and dreams, which ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same one. Here's what I've got so far: a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." Chances are, you’d hastily switch off the computer, mutter about these long-haired artist fellas and go back to leveraging buyouts or whatever else it is you do to rake in the shekels.

It looks like there’s no way out. Such novelists will just have to believe in themselves and their work, write, revise and re-revise, and then wait for agents and publishers to jump off their chairs in excitement. In case that doesn’t happen, they can always write about assassinations or befanged creatures of the night.

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