These few words on Francis Plug’s How to Be a Public Author, which I haven’t read yet, but which lies on my desk, personally inscribed by its author, Paul Ewen. The book is a satire on the literary world that follows the odyssey of a would-be-writer through a series of encounters with actual, real authors at book-signing events.
The pathetic, though loveable figure of Plug is the very personification of our current confusion over the relation of the flesh and blood author to the words they write, and the relative values of both. It’s finely balanced in its humour (I’ve heard Paul read from it a few times now) but there is one aspect of the book that I find particularly acute, particularly acid.
Each chapter of the book treats a particular real-life author – all those featured are Booker winners – and each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of the title page of their book, signed to Francis Plug. There are over 30 such pages, some of them featuring more than one book. Ewen has clearly been preparing his attack for many years.
So far as I can tell from the sections I’ve heard, the authors featured are in no way mistreated. They are not the butt of the joke; Plug is. And yet, by including those signature pages, Ewen has turned the screw on them in an almost immeasurably subtle way.
How many books does an author sign in their career? (I’ve signed maybe 200 copies of Randall since it was published in June of this year.)
How many signed books do you have on your shelves? (I’ve maybe 20 of them; it’s not something I go in for.)
More to the point, why do we want our books signed by authors?
Is it to increase their value?
Hardly! The ‘modern first edition’ bubble has long passed, surely. I remember buying a signed first edition of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, but thankfully that was a fad that very soon passed. (You could argue that the rise of the ‘special’ or ‘collector’s edition’ is a response to the sheer ubiquity of the signed copy. You get signed proofs now! The author’s signature becomes less valuable the more prevalent, the more compulsory, the more important it becomes.)
Is it then as evidence of some personal connection?
After all, the ‘signed copy’ is only a debased form of the ‘presentation copy’, given to friends and colleagues – there are some copies of my book that I’ve found it very moving to inscribe, just as there are copies of friends’ books, with personal inscriptions, that I treasure far above whatever monetary worth they may have. And, for example, I have a copy of the first volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Orson Welles that I asked him to sign after interviewing him, as a student. ‘Nice interview’ he wrote, generously, under his looping, elegant signature. I don’t think I’ve ever asked another author I’ve interviewed to sign their book, doubtless hoping to show that I was ‘above all that’.
We go to an author event; we listen to them read; we ask a question; we queue up, hand over our book and give them our name. Might we get a few words of conversation? Depends on how long the queue is, how desperate the author to get to the pub/restaurant/hotel.
And we come away with a book that has been personalised, our name and theirs, together on one page, a link between us. What is the inscription anyway? Some kind of proof of our existence? Visual evidence that we were there, like buying a bumper sticker after a day out at Alton Towers? Or perhaps it’s not the signature itself that is important. Perhaps it’s just an excuse, a fig leaf to cover what we are really after: the experience of standing there, a mere desk away from that person, that author. I was at a Karl Ove Knausgaard event a couple of months ago, but took one look at the length of the queue and decided to go for a beer with a friend instead.
Or do we ask the author to sign the book for their sake? Think of authors sat at tables in book festival tents with no one queuing up in front of them. Wouldn’t you be tempted to shell out £15 just to make them feel a bit better about themselves? I know I’ve done it. (I did a reading from Randall at a bookshop, well attended, at which the only copies bought and signed were by the three authors, for each other.)
What happens to the book, once it’s signed? It goes home and slides onto your shelf, a mark of your engagement and dedication as a reader. The book is shelved, but still the page glows; it authenticates. It gives the book life, uniqueness, it would not otherwise have.
The author doesn’t sign every page. S/he signs one page.
If you want the famous person’s autograph, why not just get them to sign a piece of paper? Why not rip out the signed page and bin the book?
Because of that one, glowing page.
Which is where Plug is so deliciously, devilishly, viciously good. By reprinting those signature pages, he has caught these often world-famous, often critically-venerated authors in the very act of selling their souls, coming down from the ivory tower of literary endeavour to mix with the readers, and give them what they want.
Think of the old adage about tribespeople worried about losing their soul every time they are photographed, and then think of JM Coetzee signing books.
(I remember the story that, if you ask R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe for an autograph, he politely declines to do so, but offers to shake your hand instead.)
By their signature pages ye shall know them.
Coetzee writes small, unobtrusively, up in the top right hand corner, rather like you’d inscribe a birthday present. He doesn’t seem to be claiming ownership of the book, just offering it to you.
(I remember a competition run by some media outfit or other with the prize of a copy of Will Young’s favourite book, signed by the singer. It was Pride and Prejudice, from memory. You could win a Jane Austen novel, signed by Will Young.)
Eleanor Catton takes up most of the bottom of the page. (“With all good wishes.”) She, you think, unkindly, will shrink her signature they more books she sells. (She probably won’t.)
Plug also gets “best wishes” from Pat Barker, Hilary Mantel, Barry Unsworth, Aravind Adiga, Howard Jacobson, Alan Hollinghurst, Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, “very best wishes” from Ian McEwan, “my warmest wishes” from Kiran Desai.
What a lot of good wishes. And from such people!
Even more self-effacing than Coetzee is VS Naipaul, who puts an elegant little scrawl right at the top of the page, above his name, almost, in fact, like a bureaucrat signing something off, a minister authenticating a document. Yes, this is fine. Next.
(Think, in fact, of the artist’s signature on a painting – that is there for authentification purposes only. It adds value only insofar as it proves it is theirs. Think of Warhol signing screenprints from the Factory.)
Anne Enright does that thing of crossing out her name before signing. Not something I do. I’ve found myself signing the pre-title title page of Randall – the one that doesn’t have my name on. That’s, apparently, a bit weird, but it would feel inauthentic if I changed it now.
Graham Swift does a lazy scrawl that you think wouldn’t have passed muster on a cheque. He must have signed a lot of books in his time, you think. Roddy Doyle looks like someone jogged his elbow while he was writing down a bus time. Ondaatje has reduced his name to an initial and a line – it looks nice, at least.
Hollinghurst and Mantel have the most elegant signatures.
Many just write ‘To Francis Plug’ then add a signature. They’re not playing the game, are they?
Others do try to personalise the event, whether out of fellow feeling, or a sense of occasion, or amour propre, or simple boredom. “May you reach the cost of Mexico” writes Yann Martel. (Wince.) Thomas Keneally wishes Plug ‘Shalom’ to Schindler’s Ark, adding a smiley face under his name. Ben Okri adds a blessing of his own, but spoils it with the worst scribbled signature of the lot – it looks like he’s trying to cross out his own name even as he’s writing it.
John Berger – of course it would be him – gives Plug his “good wishes for your own work”. Surely meant sincerely – you won’t find anyone with a bad word to say about John Berger – but showing up the secret underbelly of the author event, that Plug, all along is playing on. How many people going to these things are doing so in the hope that something will rub off on them, that through some form of sympathetic magic they can learn what it takes, step across the floor and be sat in that seat themselves?
Best of all, the one who – characteristically – sees through the whole charade, is DBC Pierre. “FRANCIS PLUG THIS IS FOR YOU” he writes in neat, deliberate capitals down the side of the page, before signing with his real name – which is a shame, as otherwise this would be a book signed by one fictitious person to another!
By bringing these signature pages together in a book, Ewen has blown the paper-thin masquerade that there is something authentic about the process, something vital and human, something culturally nutritious about the book signing, the signed book, the author event. They were signing their books to a non-existent person. Did it matter to them? No. They were doing what’s needed to be done to sell books.
Oh, by the way, I’m doing a reading and signing for ‘Randall’ tomorrow evening, Weds 1 October, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, at 7pm. Free event. Do come along!