I know, I know, three updates in three days. Unprecedented isn’t it? The thing is, I’ve been confined to the house this week working on book and radio proposals and, lacking for company, this is about as close to conversation as I get.
It’s a strange feeling not having a book on the go at the moment, for pretty much the first time in the best part of a decade. It’s weird to think that when In Search Of Elvis comes out it’ll be nearly three years since Attention All Shipping. I still get lots of e-mails from people who’ve read it and a stream of requests to go and speak about it, which all makes it seem as though it only came out recently, but, by jiminy, it came out in the summer of 2004. When I first started out writing books I was churning them out annually. They sank without trace, of course, but a near enough three year hiatus is a pretty long time between books. It still seems likeonly yesterday that I was drenched on Tennyson Down or fulsomely throwing up on the way to the Westmann islands. Where’s the time gone?
Once Elvis does come out the usual publicity rounds will start again, which I, unlike a lot of authors, actually quite enjoy. It gets you out of the house, for one thing, mixing with other human beings which is always helpful when you work on your own.
Then the reviews start to trickle in. Now, I’ve been quite lucky when it comes to reviews and have so far escaped without really having a complete stinker. Which is probably a good thing, as I’d take it personally, curl up into a foetal position and bawl my eyes out for several days. One thing that always strikes me about reviews though, not just of my books, but travel writing in general, is that everyone, almost without exception, sees fit to draw comparisons to Bill Bryson.
Now, this can be quite flattering – the bloke’s the biggest selling travel writer of our generation, after all, and opened up the genre to chancers like me. But nearly all the reviews, be they newspapers, magazines or blogs, seem to use him as a yardstick. Despite what some reviewers have said, I have no intention of being a wannabe Bill Bryson or, rather less frequently, the new Bill Bryson. I’ve read two of his books in my life, the last of which was in about 1995. I read ‘Neither Here Nor There’ while interrailing in 1992, and ‘Notes From A Small Island’ when it came out three or four years later. I wasn’t even a writer then – in the first instance I was a scruffy smelly student, and in the second a scruffy smelly musician. It’s more than a decade since I read a Bill Bryson travel book, I’ve only read two in my life, yet people like me are accused of aping him, wanting to be like him (one blog review said that “he clearly wants to be Bill Bryson when he grows up, which is a long way off” while another averred that I was “a good writer, so why does he try and be Bill Bryson?”). Which is a bit nuts, really, when you think about it. I couldn’t be Bill Bryson even if I tried really hard. For one thing, he’s brilliant, and for another, it’s been more than ten years since I last read any Bill Bryson – I can’t remember what he sounds like.
Bill Bryson is probably an influence on what I laughably call my career inasmuch as until he came along travel writing was largely an exclusive preserve of serious, po-faced, high falutin’ travellers. Bryson opened the genre up to a whole new style of travel writing. He’s the everyman – he misses buses, he twists his ankle, he gets sweaty, uncomfortable and out of breath, he gets grumpy and irrational. When it comes to travelling, there’s a bit of the Bryson in all of us. It’s understandable that a certain type of travel book is compared to him and that publishers yank out quotes like “funnier than Bryson!” and slap them on book covers, but when reviewers say people like me are trying to emulate him, even copy him, when I write about different stuff in a different style and haven’t opened one of his books in a decade I find it all a bit curious.
So why does his name come up in nearly every review? If anyone’s been an influence on me it’s P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams and Jan Morris – not to mention my old English teacher Mr Barron – but nobody ever mentions them. I saw Frost Nixon the other night – do the review of that ever say “it’s a decent enough play, but he’s just a wannabe Shakespeare”?
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a whinge, much as it may sound like one. Indeed, being spoken about in the same breath as one of the greatest travel writers, nay, just writers of all time is pretty flattering. I’m just wondering out loud why every travel book that doesn’t take itself too seriously has to be compared to Bill Bryson?
Anyway, I’ve rambled on for far too long. Back to the grindstone I go.