Thursday, October 28, 2010

one star

I had to wean myself off checking my book progress on Amazon this week. My latest novel Ellis Island has done well, generally garnered good reviews and had the accolade of being selected as a Channel 4 TV Bookclub Summer Read. But in the past couple of weeks a few nasty reviews have crept on to the web. I have always claimed to be immune to bad reviews – and for a writer, I know I am particularly thick skinned. I have never had a sense of entitlement around what I do, and as a result my writers ego is, I like to think, under control. I take criticism well, from both readers and editors, and almost every comment good and bad, is used to improve my work. I use every bit of feedback I can to progress my skills as a writer, but in any case, it is the creative endeavour that interests me more than the praise. I am pleased when people like my books, disappointed when they don’t, but I am my own harshest judge anyway – so can’t afford to take most of it to heart. Most importantly Ellis Island has sold well – which is the biggest statement of all. We writers like to be read, and we like people buying our books because – not wishing to denigrate or demystify the creative process – that is how most of us actually earn our living.
I love writing – it’s an inbuilt passion, and I have always, and will always hold onto the feeling of privilege I get from being published in a world where so many brilliant writers are still working away in private obscurity. But frankly, there are easier ways to make a living. There are harder ways too, (I started life as a hairdresser, ten hours six days a week, varicose veins, tennis elbow etc.), but there is something particularly exhausting about devoting years to producing a book, day after day, slogging away on the longest most difficult school essay you have ever written. It requires a level of commitment that a writer aunt of mine once described as – “play a game of chess in your head”, then having locked oneself away in this strangely private and often lonely pursuit – you have to prepare yourself to it being put out there in public, in the big wide world to sink or swim in a market already flooded with great books.
At first I found the bad reviews amusing. The expression “they are so bad – they’re good” occurred to me. Then I found that when I sat down to write, the nasty comments started to creep into my head. I know I am not a terrible writer. In fact according to the professionals I work with – editors and agents, I rate myself rather less than I should. In fact, the only way to write is to not rate myself at all – just get on with it and do the best I can – like most working people. So this whole “one star” – “five star” business on Amazon is something that I tally with at my peril. Of course, I don’t mind the five star reviewers - but this week I fantasised about giving the people who had written one stars about Ellis Island a taste of their own medicine. Standing behind them as they did their jobs and saying; “God – you can do better than that surely. Call that a good job? You are woefully inefficient and insufferably dull. Oh, and by the way, that shirt doesn’t go with those pants and you have a touch of halitosis.”
I was so enraged by one poisonous review that claimed I had written “a parody of romantic fiction” that I checked out their “other reviews” and was relieved to discover that they regularly bought a particular brand of sensible shoe (five stars) and was something of a gadget boffin. Social misfit – I said cruelly to myself – and undoubtedly falling into that category of person who secretly wishes they could write a novel but has neither the courage or talent to risk chancing it so they comfort themselves writing bad reviews for Amazon from their lonely bedsit.
Of course, that’s probably not the case. They are probably a perfectly nice, well-adjusted, bookish person who is simply expressing their opinion, which they are perfectly entitled to do.
If I choose to spend my life writing books and am fortunate enough to get them published, then I must lay myself open to public criticism and comment. There is something distastefully egocentric in a writer complaining about bad reviews, but at the end of the day, we are only human. Even if the weird nature of our solitary job, and the level of obsessive self-confidence it takes to do it, sometimes suggests otherwise.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I love Halloween - it's an excuse to dress up and indulge in a bit of a party without the endless palaver of Christmas or the emotional blackmail of a birthday.
I also love it because it's a festival invented by kids, for kids. The idea of ghosts and ghouls and witches and green-slime and calling at the doors of complete strangers looking for sweets is so compelling and thrilling for a child that they have, over the past few years, pestered us adults into turning it into a major event.
Halloween has, of course, got its roots in religion - All Souls Day. And now the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have issued a statement saying that Halloween has lost it’s true meaning and that it shouldn’t be about ‘occult’ celebrations of witchdoctors and zombies and green-face paint and sweets that turn your tongue black, but that our kids should all be dressing up as saints and we should leave the neighbours alone and instead be celebrating this important holiday by taking them to mass.
On behalf of the children I would just like to say to the Bishops – get stuffed!
Firstly, All Souls was a complete non-entity of a religious celebration until the kids got hold of the whole sweets/skeleton/wrapping each other up in toilet paper to make-the-best-egyptian-mummy angle. They invented that and made something out of it. Not you!
Secondly, haven’t the English Bishops little enough to worry about when they can issue miserable, boring, pronouncements about people taking religious holidays more seriously – trying to banish the bit of cheap fun out of our lives in the middle of a joyless recession?
And thirdly - oh thirdly. Do you not think that the world’s children have suffered enough at your hands, Holy Fathers, without drawing attention to yourselves by passing judgement on how they should and shouldn’t be interpreting “your” religious holidays? Generations of being taught to cow-tow to Rome has not proven a particularly healthy route for our children to take after all, resulting largely in endemic abuse and untold misery.
The Irish Bishops have stayed quiet on the subject. They have enough on their plates - keeping their heads down on the subject of anything to do with anything, especially children.
This latest pronouncement, although it seems archaic and laughable, is not merely a sign of how utterly detached the Catholic Church remains from the working of the real world. It can be easily interpreted in the more literal sense; the institution of the church doesn’t like children very much. The Pope giving out about Harry Potter is one thing. Rome’s complete inability to grasp the dark personal horror of institutional abuse is another.
“They just don’t get it,” a priest friend of me tried to explain to me once. “You can argue and talk all you like,” he says, “the institution of Rome would sacrifice every child in the world to stop one gay marriage. It’s a different world. A brick wall.”
Newsflash – you might say - the Catholic Church doesn’t like women and children? Didn’t you read the memo? But as a mother who is bringing her child up as catholic – it is a constant source of horror to me just how much the old boys club that is running the institution which runs parallel to my chosen belief system (I try to live by basic, good, Christian values – they purport to represent me as God’s homophobic, morally violent Military Wing and there is seemingly not a damn thing I can do about it!) is utterly detached from my life as an ordinary Catholic mother.
My son will dress as an African Witch Doctor and go the Halloween party at his school, which is Catholic, and the local priest Father Paddy will be there drinking tea and having the craic with the kids and NOT standing outside the school gates with a banner saying “Down with witches!” My son’s lovely school, and my kind, intelligent priest, make it possible for me to enjoy the benefits of being a practising Catholic in 2010. Outside of the individual religious that I defer to in the day to day practise of my a la carte Catholicism, the liberalism and tolerance and humanity that contradicts the bizarre belief systems of their supposedly appointed elders, I’d have to leave and become an atheist, or a protestant or perish the thought – a new age dingly-dangly “Buddhist” type which, frankly, all seems like a lot of hard work. I already know the Rosary and most of the Saints – even though I don’t encourage my son to dress up as Matt Talbot and wear a barbed-wire cillus belt at Halloween, (although, now they come to mention it….I’m sure there’s a few martyrs the Halloween tradition could suitably mimic. Perhaps they should put in an Opus Dei flagellation stand in the €2 shop?)
While the rest of the world remains open-mouthed at the archaic, detached statements emanating from the fossils in charge of what is still our biggest, wealthiest religious institution, ordinary Catholics will continue to let their children dress up as witches and dunk for apples and trick-and-treat their neighbours, because nothing makes us feel more alive than being part of a community, and seeing our children bring creative and enjoy themselves. Some of us, including me, will go the mass and light candles for our dead as well. Surely God – if not His Bishops - is big enough to accommodate both.