The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

What is a successful book?


It is almost time.

It is almost that time.

In the next few days hard copies of Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook will arrive in a warehouse in Chicago. Books in boxes — ideas I had, words I wrote, bound between covers and taking material form in this world. A few more days — a week, perhaps — and one of those books will be mine to hold.

A few more weeks — not long, but still frustratingly distant — and Prince of Tricksters will finally be published. It has been a long time coming.

As that time approaches, I think of many things. I think of the spaces where I have read. The view from a desk, the feel of a dusty court register, the smell of an archive all locate this book in particular places and particular times. I think of the conversations I have had with friends and colleagues and the kindness of academic strangers. All writing is co-writing, and without these conversations this book would not be. I think — as obsessive as ever — of the man I have written about and in whom I have been absorbed for so long.

There is more to be said about that absorption, I think.

Above all, I think of how Prince of Tricksters will be received in the world, and I am scared.

I am scared of how people might respond to this book. I am scared of how you might respond to this book — if you were ever to read it, of course.

What will count as a success for Prince of Tricksters?

A few years ago, answering this question would have been easy: when I could not write and could not think, simply having a second book in print would have seemed like some kind of triumph. An unlikely aspiration then, an imminent reality now. Success?

Right now, I’m not so sure.

In different ways, the problem of defining (and measuring) success when we are writing about the past is something that I’ve returned to a few times on this blog. Three years ago I wrote about how writing is not its own reward — the difficulties of judging whether a day or a week or a month or a year of writing had been successful. The number of words or the quality of ideas? Immediate gratification or long-term progress? It has hard to know where to begin. Later I reflected on the problems involved in setting (and meeting) targets when we are are writing. Predictably there was a cycling analogy.

Somehow the question of what would count as a success seems much more pressing, now that it is almost that time.

Somehow the question of what would count as a failure seems much more pressing, when Prince of Tricksters is about to appear in the world.

Can we count success? The number of people who buy or read a book seems an inadequate proxy for the stories I have told about a gentlemanly trickster and the arguments I have made about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s — for what I want this book to be. Sales and readers might tell us more about the success of a publisher’s marketing and distribution networks, than anything I have done.

Do we read success from the comments of reviewers in print and online? Perhaps. I am more inclined to read failure from those comments, however, regardless of how positive they might seem to others. Sensitive and prickly, the precious author fixates on the negative and the critical appraisal. After the first savage review of Queer London appeared in a Sunday broadsheet newspaper, no less, I am only too aware of the angst and anxieties that reviews can prompt.

When can we judge the success of a book? I have worked on Prince of Tricksters for over a decade and I am in desperate need of a quick fix. The low-grade frustration and anxieties have dragged on, accumulated, and built up. This nagging unease has to stop. Either way, I have to know what people think quickly.

There can be no quick fix, however.

There is the immediacy of the online or newspaper critic. There is the more belated — and, perhaps, more measured — wave of academic reviews somewhere in the future. Beyond this, however, the success of a book exists in that intangible immeasurable space where ideas take hold, are discussed, cited, challenged, and built upon by other scholars in the years after it is published. Am I deluded in hoping that Prince of Tricksters will add something to that rich and ongoing conversation about what history is, and how it might be made differently? Is it wrong to hope a book might prompt new ways of thinking about British culture after the Great War? Probably. There might come a time in the future when I realise that Prince of Tricksters has vanished without trace. It is much less likely that I will ever know that it has done something.

The nagging question: how will this book measure up — perhaps live up is a better phrase — to the book that came before?

I cannot work out what could count as success for Prince of Tricksters. That does not make me worry any less.

It is almost that time.

One comment on “What is a successful book?

  1. Pingback: History Carnival 157: Anything but Brexit | the many-headed monster

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