Inside Writing 4: You Never Escape Yourself

The Arts

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?

10 comments on “Inside Writing 4: You Never Escape Yourself”

  1. Kitty Kilian says:

    And then: what IS a literary novel? 😉

  2. Roger says:

    “Hughes’ attempts to replicate his initial hit found him stuck telling the same story..”

    Really? It’s true Hughes only published four novels – the last two part of a series – but they were very different to A High Wind in Jamaica, as were his stories and plays. He was another writer distracted by the war and wrote film scripts afterwards, but though he wrote slowly, he didn’t seem to have any blocks.

  3. admin says:

    I didn’t think he was blocked but I don’t remember them as being thematically different – I’ll take another look.

  4. brooke says:

    There are some who think Harper Lee did not write the first book. Truman was her buddy in the NYC days and many believe he is the author — or heavily edited it to make it saleable.

  5. brooke says:

    P.s. re: Lee. Her inability to complete book about a notorious local killer is cited as additional evidence that she was not the author of TKAM.

  6. admin says:

    Do you think this is true? People always seem suspicious of beautiful one-offs. I can imagine Mr Capote fixing someone else’s work – his own output was constipated. No wonder he was jealous of Vidal.

  7. Roger says:

    I haven’t read them for some time, but I thought Hughes’s other novels were good and different.
    Surely you mean “I can’t imagine Mr Capote fixing someone else’s work”. His output wasn’t constipated when TKAM came out, but I can’t imagine him letting anyone else have any glory that was around.

  8. brooke says:

    No, I don’t think Capote wrote/edited TKAM. Lee was just not a good writer. She was lucky–TKAM came along at just the time when people needed to feel that the injustices of segregation could be mitigated by “good” people. But Lee did miss a really thundering good story by not completing the third work. Too bad.

  9. snowy says:

    TKAM received a huge ‘bounce’ when it was adapted to film, which put the story in front of people that would never ever read a novel.

    [For those that enjoy such things… there are some potentially interesting numbers out there: Paperback sales (1961) vs. Theater seats sold (1962)].

  10. Tim Lees says:

    Speaking of writers outing themselves, I remember reading Denton Welch’s “Maiden Voyage” and waiting, waiting for the intense yet somehow vaguely-described encounter with a beefy sailor or mysterious fellow in a back alley — which never arrives. Nonetheless, the book’s permeated with a sense of Welch’s sexuality, and the fact that it’s unstated is part of the tension of the narrative. I wonder how much of this was conscious, how much simply sneaked through.

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