Arifa Akbar: Voting for novels with the X Factor

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When an aspiring poet wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke for advice, he was offered sobering words to send him on his way: cultivate inner loneliness, embrace solitude, write as if you have an eternity.

Inhospitable advice for our age, although the Nashville writer, Ann Patchett, made me think otherwise. Ideas for future books take root and grow as she goes about daily business, giving birth to characters as she boards planes and killing them off as she washes up.

I thought it wonderful that Patchett put her trust in this uncertain science. Letting an idea grow at its own pace, and in its own way, is a risk. It might never flower. Publishers might not like it. Readers might not buy it.

There are those who choose to come at it the other way round. Unbound, a new Internet publishing initiative, aims to guarantee the success of a novel before it has even been fully written. It works through a voting system, connecting writers with readers so the former can pitch story ideas to the latter (via a synopsis, excerpt, an ad-sales type video). The reader, in turn, votes for their favourite and pledges anything from £10 to £250. Financing a writer allows readers access to an author's "shed" where they discuss the work-in-progress and gain "insight into the creative process". A novel gets published if it attracts enough votes/funds and the writer is guaranteed 50 percent profit.

It claims to be a "revolutionary new approach to publishing" and Tibor Fischer, Amy Jenkins and Terry Jones have already signed up. Newer and unknown names will apparently follow in their footsteps.

While innovation should always be welcomed, my heart sinks. It seems like an undisguised form of writing to sell, and writing to please rather than writing to write.

Authors often rail against publishers who want to knock a story into a different shape to suit the market, or when they insist an author write in a certain genre. I wonder how writers will benefit from input from the readers, or the lack of it. Won't this be frustrating for the creative process, even before the book's been written?

Readers are promised rewards for their contributions – lunch with the writer, their name at the back of the book, a goodie bag. It is not unimaginable that a reader who has paid the money might feel he or she has rights and responsibilities over an unwritten book that they shouldn't really have. The competitive part of the scheme appears like a Pop Idolisation of books, turning literary creativity into a popularity contest.

Perhaps this is just a sign of our consumer-led times. Fischer, a Booker-shortlisted author, has placed two short stories on the site (he had 3 percent of the vote on Wednesday evening with 42 days to go). He says the scheme will give writers greater freedom than many publishers allow: "It gives us the possibility of getting books published that might not otherwise see the light of day."

What about the idea of writing simply to write? "To be a writer you need to eat. If you write a wonderful short story and it's not published, no-one will know about it. When you're unpublished, all you can think about is getting published."

I agree, but I wonder whether less seasoned writers might find their wills wavering or broken if their vote stalls at 3 percent. Or if they will be desperate to please the reader-patrons who enable them to be published. Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury, says the idea is similar to 19th- century subscription publishing. He wonders how many titles will find the funds to see the light of day. "Lord Whoever Face would write about his stately home and would want his friends to cough up the £100 to cover its cost. This is using new technology to do the same thing," he says. Dan Kieran, a co-founder of Unbound, says it is as an old idea made new. "It democratises the book-commissioning process by enabling authors and readers to make decisions about what does and doesn't get published... It's not The X-Factor. We are not trying to get a million [to vote]. Just 3,000."

It still sounds like X-Factor lite. It may be democratic, but in the way a popularity contest is – a Facebook version of achievement. As Aravind Adiga suggests in his piece, stories often involve drifting and dreaming. They are not written with the primary aim to please.

The red-eye on the Orange prize

Bettany Hughes, who was chair of judges for the Orange Prize, felt bleary-eyed after spending half the previous night deciding this year's winner – Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. It was a passionate showdown, she says, and credited the high quality of the shortlisted books for the four-hour debate. She read most of the submitted books on the hoof: "As I was eating yak cheese in Nepal, outside a Zen retreat in Hong Kong, at Chicago airport. What it made me think was 'does this book matter?'" Hughes says the inordinate amounts of reading was pure pleasure. "When I told people I had 133 books to read, they gurned at me. I thought 'I don't need your pity'."

Liz and Dick's story, by Scorsese

It's surprising to hear reports that Martin Scorsese will make a biopic about the volatile on-off love story between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The movie will be based on the biography, Furious Love, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, which brings together the love letters the actors wrote to one another. The nature of their adoration obviously lends itself to screen – although some might say it's been done in the 1966 film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It will be intriguing to see how Scorsese adapts a story that revolves around a high-voltage romance (and at times, high- voltage schmaltz, if you read their letters). Scorsese may have been looking for an "out of genre" film for some time. WhenI spoke to him three years ago, he hoped to make a movie with a woman at its centre, possibly even Middlemarch (Sam Mendes beat him to it by stating a concrete intention some months later). Eliot it ain't, but I look forward to Scorsese's Liz and Dick story nonetheless.