Friday, February 26, 2016
Notes on Contributors
How many of us read the ‘About the Author’ section, or the Notes on Contributors, those short biographies given on dustwrapper flaps, or front free endpapers, or at the back of books? They are perhaps the sort of thing, along with the blurb, that the casual browser glances at when deciding whether to buy a book. And, when the book is bought, they are apt to be perused before the reader settles into the text itself. These Notes, we may think, are generally read, whereas the book may sometimes be put aside.
I must admit to finding them diverting, often for the wrong reasons. In an anthology I once received and soon jettisoned (mercifully I’ve forgotten its title), each piece was preceded by a whole two pages about the author. By the time I’d got to the end of these, I had next to no energy left for the stories. In one, an author thought it important to tell us that he owned not one, but two, holiday homes in, let us say, Moldavia (it wasn’t, but I’m trying to be discreet). I could not help thinking that at least one of these might have been better used as the home of a Moldavian. On the other hand, a note I recently saw in the Times Literary Supplement (the TLS), advising us that “X is a freelance writer living in London”, and no more, might be deemed somewhat laconic.
Quite a few writers (me included) sometimes opt, in their notes, to give an idea of quantity, as if the sheer volume of their output might reassure the reader. We learn that Y has written several hundred stories, and Z has appeared in over forty publications. “Oh yes: how many good ones?” seems the only suitable retort. Sometimes we appear to be caught in the middle of a bizarre bidding game, as each author tries to trump the next with the weight of their output.
I am reminded of the old story about the impressively prolific and long-lived romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who boasted she had written “over 200 books”, to which a weary commentator drawled in reply, “Oh, really? One a year, then.” Although Barbara and I share a birthday (not, I hasten to add, in the same year), I don’t actually know myself how much I’ve written, and I have a sort of superstition about not counting. This is partly because early on I thought that, like the Decadent writers I so much admired, a “slim oeuvre” of a few wan volumes was all one needed. The puzzling yearning to continue writing has, however, rather put paid to that idea by now.
My own approach when asked for biographical notes is generally just to list recent publications so that, if readers like my stuff they know where they can find more, and, if not, they know what to avoid. Occasionally, however, editors ask for “something more personal”. Yet even the briefest of personal revelations has its pitfall. Each year, the TLS gossip column ‘N.B.’, on its back page, conducts a campaign against the proliferation of gift books for Christmas, because of their vacuous content and vulgarity. One year their chief fulminator noticed that the authors of such books seemed always to live in the country with cats. Ah.
But I have at least, I hope, largely managed to avoid two other practices that have caused special vituperations amongst the tetchy. One is the would-be jollified potted biography, where for example we learn the author is “the third most dangerous tiddlywinks player in Chichester”. The other is the author with a sequence of improbable jobs: “Westward Penge has been a carver of ship’s figureheads, artichoke juggler, and unsuccessful gigolo and for a while made his living as an itinerant sword-swallower in Central Europe.” I don’t think my own crust-earning sequence of “paper boy, petrol pump attendant, archaeology assistant, filing clerk, civil servant” has quite the right ring, somehow.
Still, supplying a few hundred words about yourself is certainly better than being asked for a photograph.
Picture: Shadow and Shimmer, our cats.