Saturday, 3 June 2017

X is for X FACTOR

Publishers will tell you that they are always on the lookout for book proposals that are new, fresh, original. Then, when you present them with your new, fresh and original brainchild they tend to response 'Oh, we've never done anything like that before: we don't think it will work.' This is a dilemma that faces many authors - or, at least, many authors worth their salt, for we all ought to be trying to expand literary boundaries. We hope that our latest title has the X factor. But what is the X factor?

Well, we can identify some things that it isn't. 'X factor' is not a synonym for 'best-seller', that grossly-overused expression, which has virtually lost all meaning. An X factor book is not one that does reasonably well at the bookshops. Commercial success may be the result of several different things - the author's celebrity or large fan base; an effective publicity campaign; television exposure; or lucky timing. X factor is not an accolade awarded to a book that addresses an issue that desperately needs addressing (important though such works are). X factor is not a quality recognised by committees that make literary awards. X factor is not a question of longevity, though books which have this rare quality usually stand the test of time. For example, Das Kapital does not have the X factor, while The Road to Wigan Pier does. It's easy to dismiss all these attempts at definition because X factor is, by its very essence, indefinable. It is a quality that makes something very special.

Often this quality makes a book a game changer. I referred above to The Road to Wigan Pier, a work much in our minds in this, its 80th anniversary year. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) produced a study of the appalling poverty existing in the industrial north of England in the 1930s. It told a terrible story. It shocked its readers. It pricked consciences. It was a depressing read. But it was also beautiful. The poetic descriptions of grimy streets, shoeless children and lives cut short by disease touched people's hearts infinitely more effectively than any socialist rant would have done. Orwell's readers were not just, through his powerful prose, 'observing' urban poverty; they were seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, feeling it.

Of course, an X factor book does not have to be a social exposé. In fact taking the lid off subjects we need to be aware of is probably done better by television and film nowadays. Having said that this faculty is indefinable, it would be foolish of me to attempt to describe it. But I think it's safe to offer one or two qualities that contribute to this elusive intrinsicality. (1) Passion: An X factor book is one that has got to be written, that almost tears itself out of the author's soul. (2) Love: it may be indignant, angry or challenging but it will treat its subject and its readers with affection. (3) Linguistic inevitability: by which I mean that the subject will dictate the style. (4) Painful honesty. It follows that nothing you learn from manuals, creative writing courses - or A-Z blogs - can infuse the X factor into your writing.

Most of us won't possess this strange quality. Those of us who do can't bottle it and pour it out into everything we write. If we produce one volume that has the X factor then we are among the thrice-blessed. Perhaps, if we asked ourselves the question, 'If I had only six months to live what book would I want to write for the benefit of the world?', and if we then sat down to write it, well, we just might pull it off.

PS: Don't try to work out the tweet formula - it's nonsense.

No comments:

Post a Comment