Inside Writing 4: You Never Escape Yourself
They say it’s always too late to jump on a bandwagon; by the time you see it coming it has passed. But for the writer, originality comes with its own problems. If your book presents something too fresh it can’t be slotted into a category, nor can it be summed up in a line, so your publicist can’t say it’s ‘Girl on a Train’ meets ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ she’ll tell you that readers won’t accept it.
Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Five’ has been a deservedly smashing success by solving the freshness/familiarity problem in a unique way. The author has given us an original non-fiction book about five Victorian women by building an untold story on top of a too-familiar one – the mythology of Jack The Ripper. The facts we know are shown to be wrong. Ms Rubenhold is able to flip the telescope of history around and view events from the other end, transforming what we think we know into something different, a murder story from the victims’ viewpoint. Intriguingly, the thoughtless misogyny that transformed homeless women into whores appears to have arrived later in the creation of the myth, and as usual, was suggested by the press. Ms Rubenhold’s passion and anger come through on every page.
Fiction reveals even more about the author. You can write about people you’ve never met and places you’ve never been, but you can’t write against your own nature. Whatever you do some part of it will still be identifiably you. My agent once told me, ‘I knew that was by you, it had your style.’ To which I replied; ‘I don’t have a style!’
But of course we do. Everyone does. We cannot help but have one, even if we seek to avoid revealing it. When I first read Hugh Wheeler’s 1940’s crime novels, starting with ‘Puzzle For Puppets’, it was immediately obvious that his writing had pushed him out of the closet; two lines are spent describing the detective’s wife and half a page is reserved for descriptions of the muscular marines in a San Francisco bathhouse.
It’s not easy disguising your nature. In 1933 some writers got together for a round-robin style crime thriller. These were very popular for a while; a crime version of the game of Consequences, in which each author writes a sequential chapter and someone gets stuck with tying it all together (I wrote for one called ‘Choose The Plot’). The 1933 publication was ‘Ask A Policeman’. In it, writers like Dorothy L Sayers, Helen Simpson and Gladys Mitchell each wrote a section of the story, with a twist. They took each other’s detectives and wrote in their competitors’ styles.
The result was a disaster. The writers had overreached themselves. The efforts were disjointed and wooden (although see what they did with the cover above?) Parody is best left to a specialist like Craig Brown.
In a way, this only proves how good these authors are; they write from the heart and cannot disguise who they are. Like artists, writers come back to the themes that haunt them again and again.
In his lifetime Salvador Dali was often reviled for being so nakedly money-conscious. (Had he lived into the time of Damien Hirst he’d have seen just how crassly materialistic an artist can be). But if you drive around the landscapes of Dali’s home near Figueres you quickly learn something that has been staring you in the face. Dali’s paintings are a reflection of his childhood. He’s not copying a style or showing off his technique, or being fashionable. He’s not even – like Mr Hirst – farming the work out to artisans who can paint and draw. His colours and forms, the skies, the textures, the shadows, the people, are all from his childhood. There’s no mistaking how this artist identifies himself or where he is from.
I can think of no writer who has so changed their identity that their work cannot be recognised (someone will come up with an exception now, I’m sure). Bad writers are concerned with things, far less the capricious heart.
Some authors’ novels are so deeply personal that they become career killers. Here, Harper Lee and Richard Hughes spring to mind. Lee’s book was birthed from its belated ‘sequel’, while Hughes’ attempts to replicate his initial hit found him stuck telling the same story. Could we also say this is also at least partly true of Paul Bowles and Christopher Isherwood? Perhaps it’s just that many writers are fascinated by a single theme and regularly return to develop their ideas further.
Having now completed my first 50 books I look at them and (apart from wincing at some turns of phrase) spot repetitions of theme in among the random chaos of topics. My agent wants me to develop my obsessions into a so-called literary novel, but the prospect is daunting because it forces a question upon you; namely, who am I?