Three Questions For Writers
Question 1: Early Work – Bin or Keep?
Last week I posed a question on Twitter to other authors. It was prompted by the discovery of four novels I had written between the ages of 12 and 16. They are uniformly dreadful, derivative and clumsy, with only a rudimentary grasp of construction. To be honest, I really don’t feel like keeping these carbons of my teenage influences. They reflect influential novels and films of the time, most of them entering my brain unfiltered and untroubled by any sense of discernment. An obsession with narrative; too much plot, not enough story.
Ian Rankin and Jonathan Coe both told me they did exactly the same thing. Someone suggested I keep them to remind myself how far I’d come, but when I read the work of others I’m simply reminded of how far I still have to go. I remember how I felt reading Geoff Ryman’s ‘Was’ or Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ and thinking I should taking a job as a shop assistant instead.
Reading ‘The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club’ by John Curran is a terrific if peculiar experience – who is it aimed at, fans of the artwork, nostalgists, completists? But it covers a vast range of genre novels, many of which might have been better binned than kept. It feels as though authors rode a great crest of hunger for books. Perhaps reading then was like TV now; a few gems surrounded by filler. Today, the process is far more considered. Nobody bangs out a novel in a day anymore like Edgar Wallace (on balance, a good thing).
Question 2: Would You Rather Go to a Party or Read a Book?
This was posed by Susanna Clarke, a question she then answers herself in ‘Piranesi’, a small miracle of a fantasy novel that manages to be somewhat bigger on the inside. At first I was disappointed by the apparent slightness of Clarke’s follow-up to ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ – less than 200 pages, with lots of blankness, space and repetitions. Yet in its own way it’s rich or possibly even richer than her debut success.
The book is about the very nature of fantasy, what is real and what is not, and a reclamation of sorts from the limiting, button-pushing Netflix idea of the genre. In telling a deceptively simple tale of a lonely man comforted by unshareable joys, Clarke works toward the root of how we manage to exist with ourselves. But don’t go in expecting all the answers. Like The House, some secrets remain below the surface.
Back to her answer; I vividly remember being at home when I was about seventeen and reading a novel while, just down the hill from where we lived, I could hear the sounds from the local disco and wondering why I had no desire to go there. When I finally succumbed a year or so later, it was every bit as depressing as I’d feared.
Reading was a pejorative then, for passivity and non-participation. But it’s only an outwardly passive experience; the battles are being fought in the head. I never felt embarrassed about being so antisocial and private. It is only now the author has been flushed from cover by social media that we have to share anything beyond the printed page.
The critic Brooks Atkinson once described the cocktail party as ‘the etiquette of whoring’. I once wrote a truly wretched comedy book about parties which my editor in the US refused because, ‘We take parties very seriously here.’
Question 3: Do You Think it’s Harder to be Published Now?
No and yes.
No, because there are so many outlets available to young authors who can self-publish, create a podcast, a YouTube channel, work in independent press or go after a mainstream publisher. No, because we are generally better educated now and creativity has been legitimised as a component of a profitable career, not a hobby for dilettantes.
Yes, because there are still hardly any working class writers and still hardly any black crime writers, which in 2020 is an outrageous state of affairs. Yes, because the field is crowded, and obsessed with innovative debuts which don’t translate into second-book sales. Last year’s fashion was for line-blurring genre fiction; crime with a dash of SF perhaps, or a touch of knowing meta-ness, something I’m not entirely immune to myself.
Incredibly, in my sixties I find myself still too often considered the baby of the group. Once, just before I was due to give a talk at a library, two ladies stood up and walked to the display kindly assembled by the librarians. They studied the photo below. Finally, one of them decided; ‘Well, he doesn’t look like my idea of an author.’ And they walked out.
For years I faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously. ‘You can get away with anything if you say it with a straight face,’ said Tony Hancock, who might have been describing the whole of Netflix’s output. I laughed and played tricks, didn’t take myself seriously as a writer, lacked the confidence. Perhaps because I never went to university, I failed to get this side of me out of my system.
Whether it was harder then or now, certain things never change. A lack of confidence in too many authors (which must particularly affect working class/ black writers). A failure to realise that your first book will define you forever in publishers’ eyes. And an inability to gauge whether what you are doing is in any way artistically successful, because there are so many measures of success. You can become top of the Amazon list of popular e-books about Cornish veteran cars because Amazon wants to spur you on, but that won’t get you into Waterstones.
I always wanted to originate, not imitate. It makes you impossible to categorise. You tend to fall between the cracks and pass unnoticed. Like most writers, for much of my career I’ve been all but invisible. I think of Dorothy Whipple or Peter Dickinson, and wonder who remembers them now.
Does this matter? If a writer writes a book hardly anyone reads, does it cease to exist? No, it makes you part of the Bloomsbury Group.