Saturday, October 06, 2012

The teenage writer sensation revisited

A day or two ago I noticed yet another variant on the familiar tale of a dramatically young writer being hailed as a sensation. And I thought to myself with a weary sigh, Oh dear. Here we go again.

And yet, on closer examination, the detailed story in this case turns out to be a little different. This time it may not spell, as it so often has in the past, disaster for a young person who is entirely undeserving of such a nasty fate.

Here's the story so far. And it turns out to be a month old, though I have only just noticed it. HarperFiction, says booktrade.info, acquires 17 Year Old Debut Novelist. Perhaps they don't like hyphens at HarperCollins, and they don't seem quite sure whether they are HarperCollins or HarperFiction, come to that; but let us not nitpick as if we were a grumpy old Englishman with peculiar views about the teaching of punctuation (if any) in modern schools.

It was the headline about the dazzling young writer which made my heart sink a bit. And to suggest why, allow me to mention the case of Jenn Crowell, whom I briefly mentioned in my book The Truth about Writing.

In 1997 there were press reports that Hodder & Stoughton had paid £500,000 for the UK rights to a novel entitled Necessary Madness, by 17-year-old Jenn Crowell. American rights were bought separately. If the name and the title do not ring any bells, that's because the book didn't sell well. It did not even appear in the top 100 paperbacks for the following year.

Well, that's the silly kind of thing that happened in those days. An agent would get herself all excited, either genuinely or for sales purposes, and would ring her favourite editor in a breathless state, make the big pitch, talk it all up, young author, photogenic, TV shows, bullshit, blah blah blah.

And then later, after the book had failed to impress or to sell, they would all try to forget it had ever happened. Leaving the young author, of whom so much had been expected, and whose friends and family had been led to expect a massive success, film version, fame, fortune, glitter, Oscars, prizes, life of glamour.... Leaving her where? High and dry, I suspect. Deeply disappointed, at best. Suicidal, at worst. Writers do tend to take such failures rather seriously, especially if they're young and lack perspective. Most experienced writers, myself included, have had such setbacks, though seldom, regrettably, on the £500,000 scale.

Jenn Crowell produced one other novel, and has made a success of her life in other directions. And congratulations to her. But it isn't quite the career that we were led to expect by the hype, is it?

We can find numerous other examples of the superhyped young authors, from Francoise Sagan in the 1950s to the babes in arms of recent years. And all of them lead me to the conclusion that too much too soon is a dreadful fate. And that is why I sighed, just a little bit, about the news of a 'six-figure sum' being handed over to Abigail Gibbs.

However... God is merciful and it seems that this case is different. In this instance it is not a matter of temporarily deranged drinking buddies, agent and editor, getting together and making entirely false sales forecasts on the basis of no evidence whatever other than pure hunch and a misplaced faith in their own infallible ability to spot a winner.

No. In this case the writer comes with a small army of fans behind her.

Abigail, it seems,  'is a phenomenon online, publishing The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire serially on writing website Wattpad since she was 15-years-old. To date, it has been read over seventeen million times. She has a global following, with readers all over the world who have become fans of her characters as well as of their creator. There is already an enthusiastic online subculture of devotees to Violet, Kaspar and Fabian.'

So this time it may not all end in tears.

4 comments:

Naja Tau said...

Great article! Also, it always amazes me how long the whole vampire/YA genre thing has lasted. 17 million hits is a lot!

Jenn Crowell said...

While it's a bit surreal to see myself held up as a literary object lesson all these years later, I have to thank you for your level-headed and spot-on perspective. Now that I'm both a parent and the elder stateswoman, shall we say, of the 18-34 age demographic, I can look back and say that hype and inflated expectations do young talents absolutely no favors. I was lucky in that I had an agent who was and is there for the long haul (waiting patiently for my third book -- took a decade, but it's blessedly complete!), as well as a very level-headed family who didn't buy into the media frenzy, and ensured that I didn't either. But I think I'm probably an anomaly in that respect, and don't know of many alumna from the youthful publicity storm of 1997 who are still writing professionally (save for my fellow BBC Women's Hour interviewee Badisha and I).

Appraising the landscape now, I can see that while it's a time of serious strife and flux for the publishing industry, those same cultural shifts are actually making it a much healthier creative environment for writers like the young woman who just got the deal with HarperWhatever. Ebooks, self-publishing, and digital distribution are enabling a low-risk, low-pressure DIY ethos that can lead to contracts once grassroots readership is firmly established -- which makes a hell of a lot more sense than giving a talented but tentative young person a huge advance that most likely won't be earned out (even if the book does well by modest-debut standards).

It's also hugely easy to denigrate the recipient of hype in the pursuit of deconstructing it, so I appreciate the fact that you approached this subject (and, err, me) with decency and common sense.

Wishing both you and Abigail Gibbs the best,

Jenn

DF said...

Thanks for this. Can't help thinking of the young author Kaavya Viswanathan whose novel was riddled with plagiarism.

Then there's this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/world/europe/12germany.html?_r=0

where the 17-year old author lifted material but denied it was plagiarism.

Gladys Hobson said...

Golly, how could professionals get it so wrong? And what a wonderful young writer to get over it and be a success without the hype.
Great article.