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1 December 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

While trying to avoid a deadline, I come across a novelist who sells 27 books every minute

Down and Out by Nicholas Lezard. 

By Nicholas Lezard

This morning I received an email from someone. I won’t say who but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work it out. It was a model of brevity and concision. The two are not the same thing. You can be brief and not say much. But you can be concise and say plenty. This email consisted of two questions. The first was a sum of money I had paid as part of what we may loosely describe as an ongoing programme, followed by a question mark. The second and final word was: “Seriously?”

“I know, I know,” is how I wanted to reply. “I feel your pain.” (And I would also like to thank the person involved publicly for not going off on one. All that needs to be said has been said; the message has got through.) At the time of writing I find, though, that I am owed a four-figure sum for work done at various points in the past and when one is bumping along the bottom, or riding on the rims, or whichever metaphor for financial precariousness you care to use, this kind of thing can be catastrophic. I hasten to add that it is not my regular employers who are at fault. This is extra stuff, done in order to stave off the crisis that comes when the cost of living goes up and rates of pay stagnate.

The problem is that doing more work can breed a false sense of security. “Oh, great,” the foolish freelancer says to him- or herself. “I’ve done more work! This means more money! I can now go to a restaurant/buy that coat in Sue Ryder I’ve had my eye on/stock up on malt whisky!” You buy these things and then the accounts departments of the places you’ve done work for are sluggish and, before you know it, you are in deep crap and you start replying to emails that end with the word “Seriously?” with phrases such as: “Right now, the emphasis is on not getting evicted.”

As for work itself, I am beginning to get sick and tired of the way that it is becoming seen as an undisputed good. Indeed, the phrase “hard-working families” is now a shibboleth of both the left and the right. What a miserable world this is turning into. Hard-working families? Does this mean that not only parents but children, too, should be at work? Are we now meant to spend all the hours God sends doing stuff that we don’t like? I happen to like my work – that is, I bet I like my work more than the vast majority of people like theirs (unless you are “really passionate” about, say, accounting, or driving buses, or working a till) – and I would still prefer to spend my time mucking about.

Meanwhile, a friend posts something on Facebook, the water cooler of the internet where writers gather to piss away the time, especially when deadlines loom. She alerts us to the page in a recent publisher’s catalogue in which we are given a summary of the career of (and the latest novel by) one Nora Roberts, who has sold, over a 30-year period, 27 books a minute. She is the third-biggest-selling author in the world, apparently, presumably after you-know-who and you-also-know-who.

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I am not familiar with the work of Ms Roberts and from the paraphrase given I am not sure I am ever likely to be. Even the publisher, which presumably wants to pique the interest of those in the trade who read its catalogue, would seem to have fallen at this hurdle. Then again, it is not to blame for the material that it has to work with.

Ms Roberts’s latest addition to the canon is the story of Shelby Pomeroy, whose husband, having died in a freak accident, turns out to have been a cad, bounder and chateau-bottled shit of the first order. (Not the publisher’s phrasing.) Going back to her childhood home in Tennessee, along with her “gorgeous little daughter, Callie”, she is determined to get her life back together and she discovers the “hope” embodied “in the handsome form of carpenter Griffin Lott, a straight-dealing man who couldn’t lie to her if he tried”.

Why can’t I write this crap? I had a go. “Shelby Pomeroy looked sadly out of the window. She had been betrayed by the man she loved. Could she ever trust again, she wondered sadly . . .” Is being able to churn this guff out with a straight face – indeed, to call a character “Griffin Lott” without having hysterics – all it takes to sell 27 books a minute, or 38,880 books a day? And get this: Nora Roberts has written “more than 200 novels”. The phrasing suggests that even her publisher has lost count. I am going to have to raise, or lower, my game. Seriously. 

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