Cleave: 'authors mustn't be selfish'

Cleave: 'authors mustn't be selfish'

Novelist Chris Cleave has called on his fellow authors to exercise a "profound attitude shift" and think more collaboratively about younger writers, warning of "a lot of selfishness" in the community.

Cleave's comments came following his speech at the Desmond Elliott Prize on 3rd July, where Eimear McBride was named the winner of the £10,000 award for debut fiction, with Cleave as chair of the judging panel.

The author told The Bookseller that McBride's experience of nine years of rejection from publishers was "a real wake-up call", and that writers must work to ensure that other fine debut writers were "celebrated not crushed."

There is "a huge problem in publishing", with pressures on publishers' margins meaning they are unable to take risks with new writers, he said. "The thing publishers enjoy most is discovering new talent, and they are very good at it – risk-takers, gamblers, fun, creative people. The way the industry works crushes that – if margins are close to zero, publishers can no longer take the risks they love taking… It doesn't take publishers to publish the next blockbuster for a bestselling novelist – you could do it by machine.

"I was the last generation of writers given one chance; the generation before had two chances; the generation now doesn't have a chance."

Cleave's debut novel Incendiary was first published by Chatto & Windus in 2005, followed later by The Other Hand and Gold (both Sceptre).

In his speech at the Desmond Elliott award, Cleave warned of publisher margins "racing to zero", commenting: "When it comes to serious literature the various parasites are now killing the host organism."

Cleave told The Bookseller: "Amazon is just one factor in that; it's far too simplistic to rail against Amazon, it is only one part of the problem. A major problem is illegal downloads. Type your favourite author's name and 'free e-books' into Google, and you can download them all. I was approached to talk at a Richmond book club recently; I asked them which edition, US or UK, of my book they were using, because there are minor page differences. All 40 of them were using a pirated edition. And on Twitter I get copied into tweets with links where you can download my books for free. It's not evil, it's ignorance. They think writing comes from space. But they are killing the thing they love. It's a bigger problem than Amazon and we ignore it at our peril."

The "top-down" structure of publishing, again contrasting to the music industry, where artists go on to become producers and then buy record companies, is another factor in making the industry vulnerable, he added.

His focus is on authors taking action among themselves. "Established authors are starting to develop a real career mentality," Cleave said. "There's a lot of selfishness, a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that writing should be a vocation, not a career. You have to leave it [the world of books] better than you found it.

"More writers need to celebrate new writers: 'This is my protege, I want you to read their books'. In music, artists feature less well-known artists on their album, to bring people on – they need help. I've never seen an author pick up a major prize and say, 'Now you are listening to me, you should read X, Y and Z.' It's a big platform to bring new people to public awareness."

He added: "It's not OK to stand slagging off Amazon – we are creating a culture within where we are not doing anything to help each other. It's an isolationist culture and not as collaborative as it should be. Every time an established writer opens their mouth in public, the first thing they should say is something helpful to a writer trying to make it work. It's quite a profound attitude shift. Are we helping each other? And concretely, how?

"The best thing we can do if we love the novel is to nurture it and accept there are people who will write it better than us. Everywhere else, one accepts that we stand on the shoulders of others."