Act 1, Scene 1…Enter Godot

I learned something new the other night, which is always fun, but this was quite profoundly important – important to someone who fancies himself as a bit of a litterateur and critic at any rate.

It was this: I had never properly understood the importance of a performance to give meaning to a play text.

Seems obvious, I know (and I feel a real dunce on reflection), but until I saw the recent STC production of Waiting for Godot, I had never quite realised that the play is a comedy.

What makes it worse is that I studied the text at uni – and did very well in that course, if I do say so myself. But I’d never actually seen the play, so had never had the benefit of a performance to bring the words to life.

Of course, I’ve read plenty of other play texts and never had a problem getting jokes (if they were there) or perceiving the drama. Shakespeare’s fairly straightforward on paper – likewise Arthur Miller – but Godot is an absurdist piece and must be performed to give the words the additional dimension that is only ever dormant in the text.

Having said all that, not just any performance will do. My colleague Eileen (herself an actor of ability and repute) told me she had seen a different performance of Godot ten years prior, and it wasn’t funny. Well, Hugo Weaving (Vladimir) and Richard Roxburgh (Estragon) were funny.

More than funny, they were outstanding. This was a performance full of passion and venom; love and loathing; energy, ennui and despair. Exactly the kind of performance needed to give full effect to the author’s vision, and I have no doubt Samuel Beckett would have been first to stand applauding at the curtain.

Phillip Quast was also fantastically evil and imperious as Pozzo and Luke Mullins’ Lucky made me deeply uncomfortable while also making me laugh. The cast and the performance was nothing less than world class, which is pretty much what it takes to make this play watchable – anything less and the whole thing collapses like a house of incomprehensible cards.

I walked out feeling that I genuinely understood what Beckett was trying to say, rather than just sealing it off in a compartment of my mind with the label: ‘existential play about the futility of the human condition’.

God knows what I wrote in my essay at uni about it, but now I get it.

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Bizarro World Bookstores

‘Welcome to the humiliating world of professional writing!’

(Homer Simpson)

Three months after my crime novel Straight Jacket hit the shelves, I continue to swing from mood to mood – suffering the slings and arrows of wildly fluctuating fortune. One minute I’m high as a hippy on pension day as another great review is unveiled…the next I’m lower than a leper’s libido as I walk into a book store that has never heard of me.

At the risk of sounding glib, I would suggest that getting published is the easy part. Getting noticed, getting read and becoming successful is the hard part. That’s fine…I’m perfectly happy to get off my arse and help sell the book, but I could do with a little help.

From the bookstores!

* * *

With all the pressures on traditional bookstores, like mass discounting by supermarkets, the rise of ebooks and online retailers, you’d think they’d be looking for an angle to help sell the books that do make it onto their shelves. An obvious angle is to provide something massive supermarkets and ebooks can’t – like an intimate experience with an author giving insight into his/her creative process.

I, for one, am always happy to participate in such events, even for comparatively small numbers, but I get quite a range of responses from the bookstores. There are some that are absolutely delighted to have me (and we always sell a few books), but there are others whose attitudes bewilder me utterly. Here are a couple of examples:

Bizarro Bookstore 1

A store near where I live (part of a large chain) sold over a hundred copies of my first novel (Mr Cleansheets) so I expected they would be falling over themselves to host a launch event for Straight Jacket. After umming and aahing ungraciously they agreed to do so, and I turned up one Saturday in October for a two hour signing session. They sold 20-odd copies and as I left, I said, ‘don’t worry…you’ll easily sell the rest by Christmas.’ Imagine then my dismay when I heard that straight after the event they packed up the unsold copies and sent them back!

Ever since, people have been going into that store expecting to buy Straight Jacket and it’s not there, but if they ask for it to be ordered in they are told it won’t be there by Christmas! That story was related to me by a disappointed friend on 4 December, and when I asked the distributor about it he said copies could be there in days. Is that just laziness by the bookstore, or are they deliberately trying to sabotage me?

Bizarro Bookstore 2

That was bad enough, but it pales in comparison with the antics of a famous bookstore on the lower North Shore. This bookstore is one of the (comparatively) few remaining boutique stores that pride themselves on establishing a relationship with readers – getting to know them and being able to recommend titles to suit their individual tastes. They have a good range beyond just the Big Six blockbusters and are an important resource for the discerning reader who wants more than just a transaction.

So they say.

On the morning I learned Straight Jacket had been included in the Readings Top Ten Crime Novels for 2013, I also heard that the Famous Bookstore (close to where I work) had been selling a few copies. So, emboldened by my new status as a Top Ten listed author, I decided to head down there at lunchtime and perhaps raise the possibility of an author event. I walked into the store, located my book on the shelves and noted that there was only one left, so I approached the counter, introduced myself, and asked how many they’d sold.

The girl tapped at the computer…

‘We’ve sold ten.’

There was no indication as to how she felt about that. She might have been talking about paper clips.

‘Ten? That’s pretty good,’ I said, pleasantly, trying to demonstrate that I was pleased with their effort, ‘but there’s only one left…have you ordered more?’

Tappa tappa tappa…

‘No.’

I just stared at her for a moment, slightly flummoxed. Book shop people are usually quite interested to meet me.

‘Well…it’s nearly Christmas. I work nearby and know plenty of people in the area. You’ll definitely sell more copies, but only if you’ve got them on the shelves.’

‘I don’t do the ordering.’

By this time I was wondering whether I’d entered some bizarro world where retailers go to extraordinary lengths to prevent books being sold.

‘So…who does the ordering?’

‘Store manager.’

‘Is the manager here?’

Without another word she picked up the phone, grunted a few monosyllables, and a minute later I was confronted with a rather stressed looking fellow – sweating, as though he’d just been disturbed in the middle of something physical.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked, in a slightly aggressive tone.

Again, I was a tad perplexed by my reception.

‘I hope so…I’m Adrian Deans. I understand you’ve sold a few copies of my book Straight Jacket, but you’re down to your last one, so I was recommending you get some more.’

‘We’ll order more when we need them.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. It was as though he was deliberately trying to be offensive – or had just caught me slipping a book down my trousers.

‘Well it’s getting close to Christmas,’ I said. ‘Don’t you need them now?’

‘We’ll order them…when we need them,’ he said, enunciating carefully, as though dealing with some halfwit unable to cope with the fundamentals of supply and demand.

By this point I was shaking my head, uncertain whether to laugh or scream – his behaviour was just bizarre. I tried one last time to make him appreciate the need to order more copies.

‘Look, I work in the area…I know lots of people who live nearby…you will certainly sell more copies before Christmas, but only if they’re here on the shelves.’

‘I don’t know what you expect us to do,’ he replied. ‘We’ve stocked your book and it hardly helps you blowing in at lunch time like this.’

That’s when I nearly lost it. I had reached that knife’s edge where you have to choose in an instant whether to attack or retreat. I really felt like giving him both barrels but I just smiled and said: ‘Thanks for all your help.’

‘Yeah, good luck with it buddy,’ he said, scuttling away to return to whatever had been making him sweat. (I was quite relieved he hadn’t offered to shake my hand.)

I left the store incredulous – my Top Ten status crumbling before my eyes. What I should have said to him was: ‘Fair enough…at this point I am ethically required to warn you that I am a novelist…and you are giving me excellent material.’

Instead, I contacted another bookstore, not far from the Famous Bookstore, and offered to attend for a reading/signing. They were delighted to hear from me (despite only having sold two copies so far) and couldn’t have done more to make me feel valued and welcome. The consequence is that I will go all out to mobilise my networks and get people into that store.

As I said at the beginning, book stores are under all sorts of novel pressures to survive and they have to offer something more than just a transaction if they want to compete with ebooks, amazon.com and Target. They can’t compete on price with online retailers and they can’t compete on convenience with ebooks. They are physical spaces manned by human beings so they have to do the best they can with that by emphasising the social and experiential aspects of their condition.

A partnership with living, breathing novelists – physically in their stores – is one of the best things they can do to establish themselves as places worth going for living, breathing, non-virtual readers.

But what would I know?