This is an extract from The Night Porter, Mark Barry's award winning and critically acclaimed novel set in a hotel in Southwell during the run up to a prestigious award ceremony for authors and publishers.
This conversation takes place in a hotel bedroom between the anonymous narrator, the hotel's Night Porter, and Amy Cook, the mega-selling traditionally published romance author who the novel's anti-hero (drunk, cynic and self published contemporary fiction novelist), Julian Green, detests with a passion bordering on obsession.
I post this extract for the CW students at Central College as an insight into the psychological difference between a traditionally published author and a self-published/independently published one - the novel is, at it's core, a light-hearted discourse about writing and writers.
|The Saracen's Head in Southwell - "The Saladin" in the novel|
The Ritual At The Gates Of The Temple
In her room later, after calling for more gin, Amy tells me the same story, but with subtle differences. Frank had gone back to his room – tired out, apparently.
‘Julian has not made himself any friends, you know.’
‘He thinks what happened down there is all about his book or the fact he’s self-published. It’s not. It’s about him. I think the reason they ignored him boiled down to two major issues, one personal and one industry.’
‘Julian leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes. In his quest for some illusory literary perfection, he destroys everything that moves, and he has offended hundreds online, and they remember. They talk. They network. Half the people in that room this afternoon detest him and his insults. He’s vicious, you know.’
‘I’ve encountered that, Amy. But he can be nice.’
‘He seems to like you.’
‘– but, well, so do we all.’
‘Okay –’ I say, a touch embarrassed.
‘Well –’she says, grinning, an impish look in her eye. ‘– Frank’s not that keen on you. You’re a bit English for his tastes, sweetness.’
‘Thanks for telling me,’ I respond, crestfallen. Even though I knew Frank and I were not hitting it off all that much, the confirmation hurts. My head starts to ache a little. I don’t like it when people feel like that. It jars.
‘I’m just kidding you. Frank likes you plenty, just in a different way. A more subtle fashion.’
‘Okay,’ I say, totally unconvinced.
‘Anyhow, back to Julian. They ignored him deliberately because of who he is, not because of his book. He is cutting and destructive, despite all those superhero tee shirts, his Mockney rhymers, his geeky glasses. He’s a case. I wish he would stop because I am sure it’s all just insecurity.’
‘About self-pubbing. He’s not been through it.’
‘What is ‘It’, Amy? Enlighten me.’
‘The Ritual At The Gates Of The Temple.’
‘We’ve all been there, all us mainstream published authors. All us authors you see in bookshops. All us slaves of the Big Eight. We withstood the Ritual, and now we belong. Julian doesn’t belong, like the rest of them, all the Sparkies.’
‘Authors who self-publish. We call them Sparkies.’
‘The major problem with self-publishing – apart from the ferocious competition, the lack of sales, the lack of money, the ridicule, the imbalance between effort and reward, the people who think they should be writers, but who, in fact, shouldn’t be within a mile of a word processor, the relentless marketing tactics necessary to make a sale, the hundred and twenty hour weeks and the absence of any media exposure – is the insecurity,’ she says.
‘Yes. Julian is pathologically insecure, and because of that, his tendency is to attack, like a wounded animal. Strike first and ask questions later. He doesn’t know whether he’s a good author or not.’
‘The Guardian said –’
‘– The Ritual,’ she interrupted. ‘He’s not been through it, and it kills him. He has a fear of rejection. He’s scared. The Ritual cures you of that. You see, I know I’m an author. I have no insecurities because my work has been examined and judged. Not just by readers, but by professionals. It has survived the slush pile. It has been laughed at, rejected, beaten, shunned – and this is by friends. It has survived editors. Some of whom are more vicious than Julian will ever be. That isn’t because of inherent insecurity, that’s because they are bad; plain, ordinary, bad people. My early novels were savaged by a bully, you know, and it is only because of the intervention of the fellow who actually ran the publishing company itself in this country that I’m here now. The editor assigned to me all those years ago hates me more than Julian does. I survived him. I survived. Julian doesn’t know his merit or the merit of his work, and until he undertakes the Ritual, he will never know.’
‘The Ritual of Publication?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘The Ritual of Selection. Remember the Benedictine monks?’
‘I can’t say that I do, Amy.’
‘In the 6th and 7th Century, becoming a monk was a most desirable option in a world just recovering from the Justinian Plague. Three meals a day, shelter and a purpose. But you had to be really devout. You had to desire it more than anything else in the world, and the Benedictine Order was the pinnacle. If you wanted to be Benedictine, you suffered for it. You had to want it. Those fellas made you suffer for your art. You visited the monastery to apply. You would rap on the gates. They would ignore you for hours and hours. You would stand outside the Gates in all weather. To attention, no slouching. They would come to you and, at first, they would beat you with sticks. They would knock you down, and you would get up. They would knock you down again. Those that got up and stayed up, they would chastise and mock. They would abuse and insult. All the monks inside would come out and laugh at you. They would laugh and laugh. They would beat you, chase you away, all the way down the road you came on. You would be psychologically tortured. Day and night you would wait. You would be repeatedly assured by the same Monk, an Abbot of standing and rank that you would NEVER be invited through the Gates of his monastery, and by standing at the gate, you were wasting your time. That would happen repeatedly. You. Will. Never. Belong. Time would pass. Snow, and hail, and storms, and rain. They would not feed you. You would not be given water. This Ritual would be repeated for days and days until you left the Gates. If you withstood all that, all that violence, all that abuse, the Gates would open, and they would accept you as a Novitiate. That is their Ritual.’
‘Nothing worth having is given for free, yes?’
She stands close to me now. ‘You see, Julian is as good a writer as there is. His book is sublime. His use of language is first class. He pees all over me as a writer, but he’s never faced the Ritual, and he will always have that hole inside him, that sense of emptiness, that sense of being on the outside of something. It’s nothing to do with the quality of story or writing – it’s whether you are tough enough to face the Ritual.’
‘Were you rejected?’
Amy rolled another cigarette and sipped her gin. ‘My first novel was rejected by thirty six different publishers.’
‘Whoosh. Like JK Rowling.’
‘Classic example. JK. I’ve met her, you know. Terrific woman. She hawked Harry Potter everywhere. Every publisher in the world before someone bit. Years and years, she hawked that. The Ritual, you see. Yet, the numbers of publishers knocking her back wasn’t the worst of it. She very nearly gave up, you know.’
‘Can we go for a fag in the toilet?’
‘I’m not supposed –’
She put her hand on my arm. ‘– please, love. It’s either that or the yard, and no more stories.’
I smiled. ‘Okay.’
‘And you won’t tell?’
‘Of course not.’
I can smell her as she passes me on the way to the pot. She is barefoot, and I cannot take my eyes off her feet. She sits on the toilet seat and lights a roll-up with a Zippo.
The bathroom ether becomes smoke and petrol.
She sits awkwardly, with her legs either side of the toilet seat and leans forward, gesticulating occasionally with her cigarette as she speaks.
‘Towards the end, one publisher kept JK’s manuscript for eight months. Her agent continually assured her that they loved it, and were going to publish it, after all that effort, the fish had finally, finally bitten. This is a Big Eight pubber, a proper jobbie, none of that small press stuff: They’re one step up from self-pubbing. This was the deal. She tells all her chums that Harry is going to be published. She starts spending – and she hardly had any cash, bear in mind. She celebrates, parties. One morning, she gets a parcel in the post.’
‘Oh, no. Don’t want to hear this,’ I say.
‘It’s her manuscript with a rejection letter. They’re not bothering after all.’
‘Is this true?’
‘It is. Bang on. It nearly broke her. The Ritual nearly broke her. I’ve heard her interviewed, and she said that she would have given up, the lowest point, the point where the world is at its darkest. It just goes to show how brutal publishers are.’
‘She nearly walked away from the Gates of the Monastery?’
‘I think she did. I think they got her. Mentally, she couldn’t stand it anymore. All the rejection. All the rest of it. The next morning, someone else who had previously read Harry, and who heard about the unfortunate business of the rejection, calls her agent up, and accepts the manuscript on the spot. And the rest is history,’ Amy says, putting her fag end down the toilet. ‘I had similar experiences. King had similar. Grisham. Gregory. Steele. All of them, all the authors the self-pubbing wannabes venerate. All of them suffered The Ritual. The Sparkies? Deep inside, they will never know what they’re made of. Who they are as people. Who they are as authors. It’s tough to say this to people like Julian, but until they go through The Ritual, they will never be taken seriously. Even the ones who’ve made money or even the ones who can actually write a sentence. Like Julian.’
I stand there for a bit not saying anything. She walks over to her writing table and taps something out on her laptop. My pager vibrates, and I say I have to go.
‘Thank you for that. I learned loads.’
‘A pleasure. Can you bring me up some olives? You forgot,’ she says.
‘Right away.’ I say, grinning because even though she is staring at the screen, I can see that she is smiling.
There are no smoke detectors in the rooms of The Saladin – only in the corridors and areas where chemicals are stored, plus all the other places you might expect, i.e. the kitchen.
In the great Roger Moore’s debut Bond film Live and Let Die, the character played by Jane Seymour is able to accurately prophesise the future, but only if she remains a virgin. I struggled to comprehend the mechanics of that as a child. What did it mean? It was only when I became a night porter that I understood: If I slept with a guest, I would be unable to carry on my career. My days of porting would be over. My vocation. The horror of what I have done would overwhelm me.