Writing a novel? No, neither am I

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!

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alan on April 12, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I’m not sure that all successful writers who are also successful artists necessarily have an artistic vision. Some authors admit that that they start with characters and a set of circumstances and then the characters ‘write’ the story.
    This may seem implausible to a man such as yourself who likes to think through literary mechanics and get on top of and subdue literature, but it makes sense to me, as I’m convinced that we are often mouthpieces for ideas that we are not fully conscious of.


    • Indeed, they may not, as you say, be fully conscious of possessing an artistic vision. But that is not the same as saying that they don’t have an artistic vision to begin with.

      There’s a very romantic image of the artist as a sort of conduit through whom a vision flows that is not necessarily the artist’s own. This sort of thing is often said about Mozart, and is at the centre of the entertaining (though not particularly profound or accurate) play “Amadeus”. I don’t believe this for a moment. Like most Romantic notions, it seems to me mere wish-fulfilment: it’s a way of saying “I may not have anything of particular interest to say, but who knows what miracle I may unconsciously produce!” The artist may not, I agree, be conscious of a particular vision, but whatever the artist produces comes from within the artist, and is not, I think, some mystical outpouring from some mystical source.


  2. Posted by Alan on April 13, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Romantic! How dare you!? Just because I don’t necessarily buy into the humanist idea of the Genius.
    An unconscious source or subconscious source does not have to be mystical.
    A genius may in fact be someone who paddles with the flow of his society’s currents, and maps its depths and shallows, rather than trying to desperately struggle upstream.


    • You don’t like being called Romantic, do you? 🙂

      I don’t know that I’m necessarily disagreeing with you. The qualities of a work of art may well, as you say, come from the artist’s unconscious. But, whether consciously or unconsciously, the artist must have something to express that is worth expressing. Otherwise, what’s the point?

      I gave up when the bleeding obvious dawned on me – that although I wasn’t short of an opinion or two (hence this blog), I didn’t have anything, either in my conscious or in my subconscious mind, that would make for a novel worth reading.


  3. I too struggle with the same dilemma: “Can I ask the reader to read my work rather than Garcia-Marquez’s?” But then it dawned upon me that there are those who write beautiful prose that spark revolutions, and there are those who write stories just because they like telling stories. I am the latter, I just want to just write like a Stephanie Meyer. Since I’m in my gap year, I thought I might try finishing a novel for NaNoWriMO. You should too. As you’ve said, you know your limits. If you can’t write the next Booker, why not write the next vampire saga. Just don’t take it seriously. If you love to write, you should. Because personally, it’s never been about the message when I pick the next novel to read, it is always “will I be entertained if I read this?” 🙂


    • Hello, John, and thank you for your comment.

      I do hope my somewhat dyspeptic little post didn’t put anyone off writing. There are many amateur artists who paint just for the fun of it: why shouldn’t there be writers also who write just for the fun of it? After all, one of the reasons I write this blog is because I enjoy writing, and get pleasure out of expressing whatever idea I have into words as best I can.

      Writing a story well, even without any aspiration towards artistic expression, requires great skill, I think. When I think of the great storytellers – Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, RL Stevenson, etc. – I am filled with admiration for their craftsmanship. Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near that level. Some years ago, just for fun, I tried my hand at writing a ghost story. M. R. James it wasn’t!

      But I do hope I haven’t put you off writing. If you enjoy it, then no further justification is needed; and if, unlike myself, you also have the craftsmanship to tell a story well, you shouldn’t let anyone, least of all someone like myself, discourage you.

      Wishing you all the best,


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