Saturday, 2 April 2011

The problem with self-belief

I came late to the Jacqueline Howett affair, which has been all over the internet and Twitter this week. Howlett is a self-published author who took exception to an online review of her novel The Greek Seaman. The reviewer praised the story, but criticised her poor spelling and grammar. Howett was furious, and as the to and fro of comments underneath the review grew, it became clear that she really didn’t understand what was wrong with her prose. Her last riposte before comments were closed was a succinct “F*** off”.

There’s been much discussion of this incident, with many commentators focusing on what it says about self-publishing. “This is the very type of behaviour that will continue to tarnish self-published authors as hobbyists,” was a typical comment.

That may or not be true; I’d hope that most readers have the sense to take each author on their own merits, rather than lump all of us in together and dismiss us out of hand. The thing that really struck me about the affair was the extreme self-belief Howett displayed throughout. She never wavered from her position that her grammar and syntax were perfectly comprehensible, despite numerous readers agreeing with the reviewer, who posted a couple of prime examples of garbled nonsense.

Now self-belief is something you have to have as a novelist. To make up a story, write it down, turn it into a book and then ask strangers to read it is an act of extreme presumption; you wouldn’t do it unless you really believed, deep down, that it was worth other people taking the time to read your creation.

On a more basic level, it extends to your writing style. There is no right and wrong when it comes to such things, and any creative writing tutor will tell you that you need to find your own voice. Again, it takes a certain level of self-belief to foist that voice on others.

The corollary of that is that you need a level of self-awareness to go alongside it – the self-awareness, for example, to realise that not everyone is going to like the way you write. (Not taking offence when that happens helps, too.) It’s a difficult balance, because self-awareness can easily tip into self-doubt (we writers are fragile beings), and then you’re stuffed.

Ultimately, Howett’s ravings display an extreme example of self-belief taken too far. She is so passionate about her novel that she has become blind to its flaws. A bit of self-awareness would go a long way, in this case.

Mind you, some grammar lessons would help, too.

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