Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Writer’s Prerogative

I was talking with a friend the other day, and he admitted that since our last conversation I had blown his mind. What, I wondered, was this amazing thing that I had done?

Earlier in the year he had read my first book: The book with the missing first page. That hadn’t blown his mind, I think he had liked it, but that wasn’t the issue at hand. When we had last chatted, we had talked about the book and he had casually asked about one of the stories, I forget which one exactly, but one of the stories that stops quite abruptly. He said, “it stopped so abruptly, but it’s been bugging me, what actually happened next?”

“Well,” I said, “whatever you want.”

“No. There must be an actual answer. You wrote the story. What happened next?”

“I could make up something,” I said, “but it would only be as valid as whatever you made up. And to be honest I don’t know.”

He’d gone away at the end of this conversation, and thought about it. And now he was back to say, his mind had been blown.

After that, he had gone away and found that everything he had read had seemed more fake to him. As though he hadn’t realised that authors were making up the stories he was reading.

“Surely,” I said, “you knew that authors were making up the stories that you were reading.”

“Yes, of course I do,” he said.

But the part he hadn’t been aware of was the way in which, even in stories which didn’t end abruptly, the author had been controlling his entire expectations of what was going on.

I suppose he hadn’t realised how much he was in the author’s hands. And the way he noticed was to speak to an author for the first time and realise that authors actually don’t always know what happens next either.

So does anyone have any questions? Please ask them, even if you think they sound mad. What they might lead to could be very interesting.


He is sitting on his high bar stool, supping. Reading his newspaper that he has folded in half, drinking his half pint of beer. He looks the most self-assured man in the world, because he doesn’t need anyone, or anything. And he’s just about arrogant enough to believe it.

Years ago, he made a choice when she left, he chose to not rely on anyone. He decided he would be fine with it. And he was. He came here on the weekends at three, he drank two half pints and read half of his newspaper, all the way through.

It was something, it was a routine.

She sits in the restaurant booth alone. The place doesn’t serve booze so she brings her own. Just a glass of red wine. She opens a bottle on a Monday night and drinks a small glass most nights. On Sunday she brings the rest of the bottle to the roast chicken restaurant. She has her Sunday roast with her wine leftovers. It’s easier somehow to take an almost finished bottle and finish it than it is to take an almost full one back. She didn’t know why.

As she eats, she reads the newspaper magazine that she brought with her. She enjoys little of it, but long ago decided it was traditional. So it goes on.

She enjoys not enjoying it. She knows she has to read it, because of tradition, so she can get cross with it. For everything else she has decided to be self-possessed, and if it makes her cross, she has extracted it from her life. She enjoys having something to get cross with. The rest of her life is just too average.

He half finishes the paper, picks up his half pint and takes the glass back to the bar. Calling out his thankyous he walks out of the pub.

She pays, finding exact change in her purse for the twelve and a half percent tip. She gets up and walks out of the restaurant.

What are you spending your social capital on?

In a recent podcast, Joel Spolsky made a very valid economic point about new media (you can listen to it here). He was talking about the decline of print journalism which you may or may not see as a bad thing. He suggested that the new media will find it much harder to support in-depth investigative journalism. I was reminded of this again when reading that Joe Saward is asking for donations to keep him flying to all of the races: Perhaps he can make it work, but as newspapers decline, we do lose what Joe calls authority and what Joel calls depth.

Essentially what they are talking about is that print journalists will often be assigned a beat, be it Formula 1, be it politics. They are paid to attend all the sessions of the sub-committee on water supplies in Croydon just in case one time somebody says something that is news. Knowing the subject deeply and authoritively is what makes it possible for you to be objective. It stops the worst of the ‘me too’ journalism, where an interested party posts a press release and everyone else reports it as news. News should never just be the dissemination of “what we have been told”, but rather it should be “what has happened”. Currently we are beginning to lean too much towards regurgitation.

Print is dead, or at least mortally wounded, and so we have to work out how to pay for the right kind of journalism. Micropayments, tip jars and so on have a distorting effect. People only pay on the days when the story seems worth it, or when you remind them. The previous model means that the celebrity tittle tattle 365 days of the year, paid for the one-off discovery by the Telegraph of the expenses scandal. In the interconnected world of blogs these wouldn’t fund each other because they would be two different blogs. And the expenses journalist doesn’t have a story for the rest of the year because they are doing deep research for the next piece.

The other problem that Joel raised was the economic one. People forget when they are spending money on the internet. It’s an odd concept, money, and it foxes people all of the time. Take Craigslist, the classified advertising service. People love Craigslist because it’s free. But it turns out that classified listings in the back of newspapers were essentially what was keeping the newspapers afloat.

Now, and this is where it gets complicated, we have two stories of what’s happening. Craig of Craigslist explains that what he’s doing is a social good because he has worked out a way to give this advertising away for free. But in economies things don’t really work like that. People and companies that were using his service were willing to pay for their adverts. If you are selling your house for hundreds of thousands of pounds you are willing to pay your estate agent to sell your house, and your estate agent is willing to pay for the advert in the paper which means that the paper is willing to get some readers for your advert. And so we go on.

Now the same estate agent was willing to pay $300 to place an advert can place the advert for free and so doesn’t bother. It’s estimated that Craigslist has reduced spend on classified advertising by around $1 billion per year. That money hasn’t disappeared. It’s gone to making Estate Agents and people who otherwise would have been happy to pay but find £5 in their pocket and do with it whatever they please.

In economic terms, this free product that people were willing to pay for results in that $1 billion is being spent on putting the print newspapers out of business, or more specifically, it’s being spent on putting investigative journalism out of business.

Craig doesn’t want the money, and that’s admirable. But couldn’t he collect it and set up a fund that paid for good quality journalism? Because if we lose good quality journalism, then we lose our ability to know that we are free people.