Like any teenager interested in literary matters, I wanted to write a novel. And I thought I could. I was, at the time, reading some of the finest of all novels, and yet, with that astonishing arrogance that seems inevitably to go with youth, I imagined that I, too, could come up with something comparable. George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Mann … none of them filled me with the awe they inspire in me these days: back then, it seemed to me that whatever they could do, I, with a little application, could match.
Somehow, this illusion lasted into my mid twenties or so. Then, perhaps sadly, common sense got in the way. I looked at the pathetic pages I had so seriously struggled over, and I looked at those titles staring down at me from my shelves. Could I, in all seriousness, ask the prospective reader to tackle my work instead of tackling Proust? For, like it or not, if you are a novelist, you are competing with the best. You are in effect saying: “Yes, I know there are all those wonderful novels you haven’t yet read – novels by Ivan Turgenev and by Joseph Conrad and by Edith Wharton … but I’m asking you to defer tackling those unread masterpieces, and spend whatever time you set aside for reading to read my effort instead.”
Such a consideration should put off any but the most gifted, but, to judge from the proliferation of creative writing courses and self-help books on novel-writing (did Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky require such books, I wonder?), more people than ever want to write.
There’s a novel in everyone, we are told. Perhaps. But whether that novel is worth reading is surely another matter. For, contrary to received wisdom, the novel is not, I think, a means of self-expression. Or, if it is, it is only worth writing if one has a self worth expressing. And, much as it may hurt our egos, not all selves are worth expressing. But the idea of the novel primarily as a means of self-expression has taken root, and the consequence is a stream of novels – a few of which even get published – that are little more than navel-gazing.
To state the obvious, to write a novel – or, at least, to write a good novel, a novel worth reading – the writer needs technical ability. I think this is all the more so when one is writing purely to entertain, without any thought of exploring any of the deeper themes of life. In a profound novel, such as, say, Moby-Dick, any number of technical shortcomings can seem insignificant when seen in the context of its artistic vision: but in a Flashman novel, say, the same technical shortcomings, without the compensatory factor of an artistic vision, will prove disastrous. Good literary entertainers such as George Macdonald Fraser were technical masters, as, indeed, were the great literary entertainers who had preceded him – Dumas, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, etc. (And Agatha Christie too, I suppose, although her works aren’t to my personal taste.) And it is fair to say, I think, that such technical brilliance is exceptional rather than otherwise.
But I suspect that most people who dream of becoming novelists harbour artistic ambitions. And here, I fear, mere self-expression falls far, far short of the mark. To write a novel that is a success in artistic terms, one must convey an artistic vision. Indeed, one must have an artistic vision to start with. One needs also to understand what goes on in the minds of various types of people – people very different from oneself. Very few people have such a vision, or such an understanding. This is why very few people are qualified to write novels. It is certainly why I am ineligible.
It was in my mid-twenties, I think, that I understood how ill-suited I was to write a novel. Even if I were to try very, very hard, I reasoned, the best I could ever hope to produce would be something mediocre. And is the world really crying out for yet another mediocre novel?
So I decided that if I can’t be a good writer, at least I could make an effort to be a good reader. And that is what I have been doing ever since, with immense profit and enjoyment. Beats being a tortured genius, at any rate!