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  • Mark Stibbe

SHOULD I BE MYSELF OR PLAY THE GAME? AUTHORS AND INTEGRITY

My wife Cherith and I don’t often get to go abroad for a holiday. Life as a full-time writer isn't lucrative and our finances don’t stretch to that. However, not long ago we did manage to afford a much-needed budget holiday to sunny Portugal. We agreed to take the same novel, A.J. Flynn’s psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, to read by the pool. Cherith went for the paperback edition. I donned my Bluetooth earphones and went for the Audible version.


During the next ten days, we read through it together while I turned brown, and Cherith, my beautiful red-headed but fair-skinned wife, turned fifty shades of pink.


About two thirds of the way through, Cherith put her book down. “What do you think of it?” she asked. And then, before I had time to answer, “I think it’s good. Really good.”


“I’ve not decided yet,” I said. “I’ve got some misgivings, but I’m finding it hard to articulate why at this stage.”


The conversation ended there, but a few days later, she asked me again. This time I was a bit more lucid.


“I don’t like it.”


“Why?”


“From a writer’s point of view, it feels like someone has familiarised himself with what the publishing world hankers for and he’s bolted these elements together in a way that doesn’t feel natural. It’s contrived, right down to some of the vocabulary. It feels like artifice, not art.”


It turns out my suspicions were well grounded. Later that year, the news broke that Flynn is a pseudonym, that the person behind this persona was working in a publishing house, that he had been caught out for blurring the lines between being truthful and honest (to the point of outright delusional thinking), that he had made stories up to advance his career, and that he is now regarded with extreme suspicion by many in the industry. Turns out that AJ Flynn (real name, Dan Mallory) is a narrator as unreliable as the one in his novel.


Now, I tell this story not to say, “I told you so,” or to take the moral high ground, but to issue a warning to all of us who are either established or aspiring authors. Being truthful is important. Being who you really are is vital. Cherishing your integrity is essential.


Don't sacrifice your integrity for celebrity.


We all know as authors that the industry has never been as ruthless, exclusive, elitist, competitive and challenging as it is now. Never has it been harder to get your book published by an established publishing house, whether fiction or nonfiction. Never has it been easier to sacrifice your integrity and, out of a craving for income and influence, to sacrifice what you feel passionate about for what the industry regards as “commercial.”


I know.


I’ve been tempted in this area.



Not long ago, one of my sons told me that a twenty-something friend was earning a fortune writing and self-publishing erotic novels. For a few hours, I toyed with the idea of doing the same thing.

I could earn a fortune too. This kind of thing is easy to write. I could assume a pseudonym and write Mills and Boom type novels, only on steroids!


I even chatted half-jokingly with Cherith about my grand idea; to be honest, she just laughed! But then I started imagining myself writing this stuff and within seconds I was thinking, Nah! Not for me. It’s commercial, but it’s not helpful, not as far as my soul is concerned.


You can laugh at this too, but I don’t know many serious authors who haven’t gone through moments like these, when they’ve been visited by a devil who proposes a Faustian pact: "I'll give you the world if you play my game..." When this happens, we writers are tempted to assume an alias, take up our pens, and write something that isn’t who we really are, just for the sake of fame and fortune.


No one will know it’s me, we think.


Except me.


I’ll know.


God knows.



The great American poet E.E. Cummings once wrote this, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”


I agree. So, here’s what I’ve decided in the last few months – two decisions, in fact, inspired by two of my most loved musical artists.


The first is Stormzy who, at this year’s Glastonbury Festival was public and unembarrassed about his Christian faith and who, with his song Blinded by your Grace, brought a potent, Black Pentecostal church experience to the festival. It was a stunning act of courage.


At that moment, I made a pretty big decision. It went something like this.


I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a Christian author. I’m not going to separate my art from my faith. While I won’t use stories for propaganda, I will be true to myself. My Christian faith will inform my storytelling, just as it did for Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor and Protestant storyteller C.S. Lewis. I know that this will not endear me to people who have a secularist and anti-Christian bias. But I don’t care. It’s who I am, who I really am.


I can’t tell you how liberating that was.


I’ve felt much happier ever since.


Thank you Stormzy!



The second person who impacted me was Cherith and my favourite musical artist, Lucy Spraggan. She was on X Factor 2012 when she pulled out. There were several reasons for this but one of them was about the sense of losing her identity. She didn’t want to be moulded into something she wasn’t - into a teen pop idol, rather than the modern-day troubadour and genius that she is. Now she plays in places like Dover, where we’re seeing her on Friday night.


Dover, not the O2.


That spoke to me too.


Deeply.


So, my second decision went something like this.


I don’t want to be forced into being something I’m not by this devouring Behemoth that is today’s publishing industry. I’m happy to be who and what I’m supposed to be. I’d rather be an Indie author who is “free to be” than a Sunday Times bestselling author who’s not. I’d rather have a smaller fan base who love it when I write what I’m passionate about, rather than a large fan-base that likes what publishers are hungry for me to write.


I can’t tell you how liberating that was. I’ve felt much happier ever since. Thank you Lucy!



So then, should I play the game? Or, should I be myself? I think I’ve discovered the answer to that. The hard way.


How about you?


And oh yes, Dan Mallory - aka, AJ Flynn. What’s happened to him? Well, last I heard, his publishers have decided to carry on with their agreements. Apparently, he’s good at his job in his publishing-related firm and his book (now being released as a film) was the best debut novel for 12 years. So, they are standing by their man and going ahead with publishing the second book he’s contracted to write. And the film is coming out too. Soon.


Integrity, as it turns out, is not a core value in some of the shadier parts of our publishing world.


I hope Dan gets some help. I really do. He’s clearly not well and I really do care about people with mental health issues. That’s one of my passions.


But just as important, I hope the industry gets some help.


It’s clearly sick too.


As Bob Marley once said, “The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.”



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