Reflections from my Writing Room January 2023


Today I’m diving into my past as I reflect on how we develop our tastes, and the influences that help us discover culture, music and books.

I’ve just booked concert tickets for this evening to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra at a venue near me. Brahms First Symphony, a favourite of mine, is on the programme. It’s the first classical piece I discovered for myself and brings back memories from my late teens.

Although I was thrilled to get the tickets, it bothered me slightly that there were masses still available on the day. Are audiences for live classical music disappearing? Has it become an older generation thing? Although I go to many more rock concerts than classical every year, I'd hate to see orchestral music in decline.

How do you develop a taste for something if you’re not exposed to it? I know music lessons in schools are under threat but, to be honest, I didn’t discover classical music through any exposure in childhood. I squandered my piano lessons by refusing to practice, and sitting on hard seats in the school hall being force-fed extracts from Fingal’s Cave made me yawn with boredom.

Long, long ago, in my second term at Liverpool University, I got together with a man, four years older than me, who was obsessed with classical music and wanted to share his passion. He wasn’t a musician though he was a talented artist. I don’t think I’d ever been to a symphony concert before, though I was a regular theatre-goer. Listening to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra in the stunning Art Deco concert hall was an immersive experience. In the days before, he’d bring LPs (yes, really) of the pieces round to my room in hall so we could listen to them on my ancient record player. On my nineteenth birthday he gave me Femme perfume and an LP of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. (The actual one in the photo – I still own it).

As an impoverished student, I couldn’t afford to build a collection but he’d bring round his own LPs and introduce me to popular composers like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Rachmaninov. In vacations, when he visited me at home in Wales, he’d bring a tape of musical extracts he’d recorded and get me and my parents to compete to ‘name that tune.’

Writing this now, it sounds a bit controlling but it wasn’t all culture. There was plenty of drinking and partying, summer balls, and football matches at Liverpool FC. He was a fantastic guy and, although our relationship was always shaky, it dominated my student years.  Whenever I thought we were over and started seeing someone else, he’d come bowling back into my life. One of his more dramatic reincarnations happened while I was travelling in Sri Lanka the year after graduating. I’d landed a locally-engaged job at the British High Commission and was making new friends with locals and diplomats, backpackers and tea planters. Then a telegram arrived announcing his imminent arrival at Colombo airport …

Although I rarely see him now, we’re still in touch. I’m eternally grateful to this man for sparking my love of classical music. Later, I was able to discover pieces for myself like the Brahms symphony I’ll be hearing tonight.

What has any of this to do with writing?

I’ve been reflecting on how we develop our reading tastes and expand the range of books we read. Are recommendations from friends and reviews important? Marketing and PR professionals advise authors to identify the people who are most likely to read their books and say  promotional activity, or mailing list building, should focus on them. But how do you find those people? An example might be to seek out fans of authors who write in a similar genre to you. That’s easier said than done but social media can be a starting point to interact with potential readers.

In Facebook or Amazon advertising, you can define a target audience and have ads served up to people who read books by a certain author. If you write psychological thrillers, for example, you might want your books appearing next to a leading name like Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Lately, I’ve noticed that when I search for a well-known author on Amazon, let’s say Lisa Jewell, the books that come up top in the search results list aren’t by Lisa at all but by other authors. Their publishers must want their books placed next to hers to tempt readers. It’s the virtual equivalent of having your book sitting on a bookshop table next to a prominent comparator author.

How else do readers choose new books? Thinking about how I was influenced by that long ago boyfriend, I asked a few friends how they discover new books and what encourages them to read outside of their favourite go-to writers. The answers were interesting so I’ve anonymised them and quote them here:

For me, it’s hearing an interview with an author. I listen to lots of writing podcasts and if I hear an interview with an author I find really engaging e.g. recently Candice Carty-Williams, it always makes me want to read their book.

Note to self: Listen to more podcasts.

Tip for authors: Contact podcasters and get booked for a podcast interview!

I think a friend’s recommendation or an intriguing blurb are the main factors for me. I’m always a bit cynical about prizes and reviews as they’re so subjective. And if a book I’ve heard discussed sounds like my jam, that’ll clinch it.

My thoughts: I’m delighted to hear that a friend’s recommendation is still powerful. I’m in two book groups and often have to read books I wouldn’t have chosen but sometimes that leads to  discovering a brilliant new author.

Tip for authors: If your friends enjoyed your books, encourage them to tell their friends about it.

I mostly choose from reviews and prize winners/shortlistees. Reviews can be misleading. Claire Lowden reviews in the TLS and is commendably merciless with her criticism … so while her reviews will still be subjective at least they’re honest and not just bolstering a writing mate. I also have my authors’ watchlist … a few writers whose writing I will always read and admire.

Note to self: Make sure Claire L never sees a copy of any of my books.

Tip for authors: Reviews and prize wins are important. It’s always worth entering a respected writing competition. As for reviews, criticism may be subjective but is inevitable. Sometimes it hurts.

All of us who write have learned to brace ourselves for rejection from literary agents and publishers, and tough criticism from reviewers. But if it’s all too much, my recommendation is to shut it out and listen to some music. Brahms' Symphony no. 1 could be a good place to start.

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