Manners Maketh Misunderstanding

(We have a Facebook page now – do come and “like” us and say hi)

(posted in response to a point raised on The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize review of The Dead Beat. Click here to download The Dead Beat for free)

The  issue has been raised over at Not the Booker, most notably by John Self, of whether it’s a good or a bad thing for authors and publishers to get involved in the discussions over there about our books. As we’re the main culprits, I wanted to write something explaining why we act like we act. I thought we owed that much to the good people of the Guardian who let us on their site, and to anyone who might be interested in us and what we do more generally.

Let me start with a couple of scenarios. The first is by the by but it makes a point – that small, passionate, niche outfits like ours do best to follow Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans model

  1. You are invited to a one-off do with 100 potential fans. Which would you rather – a. you offend no one, everyone says what a good guest you’ve been, and a week later no one remembers your name. Or you piss off 98 people in the room and the other two love you?
  2. “Hi. Good to see you. Just to remind you, this is how we do things here…”

“Hi. Nice to see you too. Can I ask why?”

“Because that’s how people like it.”

“And when you come back to ours, you’ll do likewise, yeah?”

“We won’t be coming back to yours.”

“Ah, why not?”

“We don’t like how you do things.”

“Ah, we feel a bit uncomfortable with how you do things too, so I think we’ll stick to how we usually are. We’re the same people underneath it after all.”

“No can do, I’m afraid, people will get offended.”

“Umm, OK, no can do either, I’m afraid. We’re really sorry about it but they’ll have to be offended and content themselves with the fact we won’t be here very long.”

Now, if your reaction to 2 is that there’s disrespect going on, I agree. I think the host was incredibly disrespectful. An aside, and I really do want an answer/discussion – since when did “when in Rome” take over as the dominant norm from traditional guest-friendship? Is it a Greeks v Romans thing?

Anyway, there are two problems with “manners” – the common social coin that serves the unquestionably useful purpose of allowing people to sit down together without killing each other. First up, they perpetuate inequalities by pretending they don’t exist – and by being host-centric they perpetuate in particular vertical inequalities with the results that they encumber guests more than hosts, creating an underlying pressure point that serves no one’s interests.

Second, they guarantee the one thing that won’t happen is genuine understanding. It’s the multiculturalism debate writ large. Manners will make for a show of “getting along” but because both sides are speaking a common coin that is skewed to the host there will be genuine understanding on neither side and an unequal building of resentment at the underlying sense of misunderstanding this builds. It is only when people are allowed to be who they are that we can have any hope of deep understanding. True there will be disagreement too – and this will be open. But which is better – open disagreement or closed misunderstanding? And which shows more genuine respect for the Other – being who you are in search of understanding, or being who you’re not in avoidance of conflict?

Anyway, that’s one part of the rationale for “why we get involved in our own way.”

Another part is in our manifesto :

“we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.

we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.

for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way.

go on. push, and see what exists on the other side of the door. those traces you see on blogs and underpasses, left behind in railway carriages and in strange marks on walls and pavements and facebook updates. they are tips, and traces, but of what? of something remarkable and fantastic.”

There are two things here. First, there is an established way of doing things (we know it’s not that homogenous but still) and to get anyone to listen that’s always been the language we’ve been expected to speak. For many of us, it’s meat that we’ve been outsiders, treading the line between going unheard and shoehorning ourselves into other people’s ways at huge mental cost all our lives. And we’ve reached a point where we’re just not going to do that any more.

Second, we’re not simply going to hide in our ghetto and do our thing. Because we think what we’ve got to offer is great and that there are other people out there who will want to be part of it. So we’ll offer glimpses and invitations as often as we can – and that means being ourselves.

And part of being ourselves is getting invovled in conversations – we’re by and large talkers through of things, developers of work, and to boot most of us come from bulletin board backgrounds where endless chewing over and refining is the norm.

I want to end with a heartening tale of some fabulous guest-friendship that’s led to genuine understanding. For a long time, I’ve been critical of Blackwell’s as just a chain, with all kinds of corporate blandness overtones. Earlier this year, they ahd an online poll for “favourite Oxford novel”. I posted on Facebook and a whole bunch of my colleagues voted for my book The Company of Fellows. It ended up winning. That put Blackwell’s in a really awkward position, but they decided it was quite a good story and ran with it – they had the local paper in, they gave me a front of store table, and invited me onto a new writers’ panel. And on October 18th they’re letting the whole of eight cuts loose in the store to put on one of our shows. We would like to invite everyone along t see what we do – it’s very much not the usual hipster literary evening – as you may expect, it’s about passion and engagement, not appearance. We think genuine word lovers might really enjoy it. The result of all this has been I’ve got to know Blackwell’s and completely change my opinion (not because they’ve been nice to me but because I’ve got to understand what they’re about) and they’ve got to know what we do. An initial moment of tension and worlds colliding has led to a great working relationship based on mutual respect – which is so so different from getting on by being polite.

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