I tried to write a novel once…

I tried to write a novel once

No, really, I did. My excuse is that I was young then, and, with the arrogance of youth that I sometimes wish I’d retained, I really thought I was up to it. Good heavens, how I slaved at it! How many hours did I spend scribbling away with my biro pen (these were before the days of laptops)! How determined I was to deliver something to the publishers that would knock ’em flat!

Of course, I needn’t tell you that it was pretty shite.  And I suppose that it is to the credit of my younger self that, after a few months, I realised for myself just how shite it was. After all, I had read Henry James, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy … I knew what a good novel read like. And mine … well, mine didn’t. It was so depressingly obvious that I didn’t have whatever it takes even to make a middling novelist, let alone a good one. I figured out that if I really worked hard at it, I might be able to produce something that was mediocre; and even then I knew that the world was not crying out for yet another mediocre novel.

What I find puzzling these days is why so many people seem unable to reach the rather obvious conclusion that writing novels requires skill, which is rare, and talent, which is rarer. On no less than two occasions, I have had to read friends’ “novels” – I use scare quotes advisedly – that were frankly even worse than my aborted effort. Dear God in Heaven …

No, let’s leave it there. Some experiences, even after the passage of years, are too painful, too raw, to talk about.

And yet, that sentiment that “everyone has a novel in them” seems not to go away. It sounds agreeably democratic, after all. It has been noted recently that while the term “elite” denotes something to be admired when it comes to sports, in the arts, it is almost invariably used as a pejorative. There are a few differences, of course: when used in the context of sport, it usually refers to the athletes, whereas, in the arts, it tends to refer to audiences. It’s still lazy thinking, right enough, as whatever is packing out the sports stadia and keeping the theatres and concert halls empty, it ain’t the price: a ticket to a Premiership football match would cost me far, far more than a ticket to the Royal Festival Hall, say, to hear the London Philharmonic. But when a belief is deeply rooted, mere facts don’t really matter too much: the term “elite” certainly has very different resonances in different contexts. But be that as it may, in the arts, the resentment against elitism isn’t, in general, directed at artists. Except, perhaps, when it comes to novelists. For, after all, everyone has a novel in them! What makes professional novelists so bloody special?

Actually, in a certain sense, the sentiment that we all have a novel in us is probably true. Everyone, beyond a certain age, has had experiences that could form the raw materials of a novel. Of course, it takes skill to organise those experiences into a coherent form, present them in a manner sufficiently interesting to engage the reader, and so on, and so forth. And if the author has talent as well as skill, the narrative may be imbued with what we may call an artistic vision – a way of looking at life that is sufficiently interesting, or sufficiently original, or even, perhaps, sufficiently visionary, to not only engage, but maybe even to enrich the reader. On rare occasions, the finished work may even take the reader into realms of such rarefied experience that it could be deemed worthy of reverence.

But I doubt any of these things matter to those who hold that there is, indeed, a novel in all of us. After all, we live in times when one may seriously consider the question “At what point does a novel become literature?” without ever referring to literary quality. The concept itself seems almost embarrassing. Novels are for recording one’s raw experiences. They’re about finding oneself. They’re about discovering one’s identity. Asserting one’s identity.  Determining what labels best attach to one’s self. And once literature can do that, its task is accomplished.

Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown my manuscript away all those years ago. After all, no-one really cares about literary quality, as such: I could, in my own uncouth way, have “given voice” – as I believe the expression is – to the Immigrant Experience. More particularly, the Bengali Immigrant Experience. Or the Indian-Bengali Immigrant Experience. I’m sure there are a few other labels one could add. There would not have been much artistry involved, of course, but that’s all to the good, as the very lack of artistry would have evidenced authenticity. I’d have “given voice”, and that’s what counts.

Flannery O’Connor famously had this to say about the democracy of creativity:

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

She had a few other choice remarks to make about writing classes:

In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.

I find it hard to disagree with the sentiment. Indeed, I applaud it. I am pleased to see also that she used the word “vision”: it makes me feel a bit less embarrassed about having used it myself. But I can’t help reflecting that if Ms O’Connor were to read that manuscript I threw away so many years ago, she would not have declared with such confidence that “any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge … able to write a competent story”. For this idiot certainly couldn’t. But perhaps she didn’t foresee a time when competence wouldn’t really matter so much – when all that really matters is giving voice to your identity.

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16 responses to this post.

  1. Bravo for an excellent post. I agree with you. I wrote a novel almost 20 years ago and I was not writing for anyone else but myself. It was a good way to organize my thoughts and emotions about a serious event in my life and the novel form allowed me to flesh out characters I could not possibly know much about. It was a good experience and it was for my eyes only. If you can say “I am writing this for myself and it is perfectly fine that nobody else reads this” it’ can be a salubrious exercise.

    Reply

    • Hello Natalie,
      I think writing really is a good way of, as you say, organising one’s thoughts and emotions. And there’s no reason why one can’t attain a high level: after all, all writers were amateur writers at some point – Austen, Tolstoy, Faulkner … even Shakespeare! And if we can have amateur painters and musicians, why not amateur writers? It’s just the increasing lack of concern with quality that bothers me: as long as you “give voice” to your experiences, that seems sufficient!

      And if you have good friends whom you trust, ad who do not mind reading some of your stuff, well, that’s fine too. It’s when you’re asking to be admired that it starts getting difficult! 🙂

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Jhumpa Lahiri has cornered the market in America for that Bengali identity? Nobody seems to come in under the rank of Phd. in her world. It’s what she knows I suppose. It doesn’t take all kinds and that’s a lack.
    Your bitter, dark, shameful secret novel has come to light after you die. Chapter 6 ‘Up at ‘Mill’ and Chap.7 ‘Trouble at ‘Mill’. I was especially struck by, hah, says Quentin Midgley.
    A journal or a blog on the internet has taken the place of the drawer of literary dreams. It could be that some variant of self-publishing will become the dominant feature of publishing.

    Reply

    • Jhumpa Lahiri has cornered the market in America for that Bengali identity? Nobody seems to come in under the rank of Phd. in her world.

      Ha ha ha! Well – that’s us Bengalis for you! 🙂

      You’re right, though – writing the blog has certainly become a substitute for writing that novel that i know will never be very good. Once you have that habit of scribbling, you just have to keep going, don’t you?

      Reply

  3. By chance, I saw a quote this morning (nothing to do with novelists, it was from a triathlon company): “Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent”. It struck me as rather appropriate to your experience of attempting to write a novel.

    I very much doubt that Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens etc., read through their first draft of their first novel and thought “Hmmm, the prose could do with some work, but I can see I very obviously have great talent and vision.” Neither did they think “I clearly lack the talent of Fielding and Richardson, so I’m going to quit now”.

    This is not to say that anyone, with persistence, can achieve greatness, or even competence – but it *is* to say that anyone without persistence certainly won’t!

    I think it’s worth considering whether vision comes fully formed, or if it is something that is emergent – evolving the more one writes (and rewrites). I have a suspicion that starting out with a definite “vision” (or its close relative, a “message”) undermines much of what is best in creative fiction writing. A polemic dressed as a story does not make for a great novel in my view.

    Of course, writers need some sense of what they’re trying to achieve – the sorts of conflicts they want to set up and themes they want to explore – but for most that are any good, their characters will take on a life of their own and do things they didn’t expect, but which ultimately ring true. The hack will ignore this and shoehorn their characters to fit in with their narrative or polemic plans, whereas the writer worth their salt will reconsider and often adjust their original plan. Thus the novel, which may have started with a “top-down” plan, ends up as something which emerges – to at least some degree – from the “bottom-up”. I have heard writers describe the process as a sort of “productive daydreaming”.

    To conclude, I can’t say whether or not you lack the talent to write a passable, good or even great novel, but I can say you lack the compulsion to keep trying that characterised most great novelists (as well as an awful lot of bad ones!).

    Reply

  4. To expand a bit on the “bottom-up” aspect, and “productive daydreaming”, I think what I’m getting at is that, study as much as you like, you can’t write a great novel through logical thought alone. The “bottom-up” part comes from applied imagination rather than logic; it’s a different mode of thinking altogether, more like “social imagination” or “theory of mind”. It’s this process which results in characters which are plausible yet capable of surprising us (an essential characteristic of fiction).

    Reply

    • Hello Mike,
      I honestly have no idea how the creative process works. And I am sure you are right in saying that, had I persisted, I could have improved my technique. As for what Flannery O’Connor refers to as “vision”, once again I agree with you that it is more likely to be emergent rather than something fully formed. In many cases, I imagine the authors themselves aren’t too sure what precisely their “vision” is, or how it can be expressed. But whatever it is, it is something that is an aspect of the author’s person, of the author’s mind, the author’s thought – I doubt it is something that will come through with a bit of persistence.

      Of course, there is nothing wrong with people writing for enjoyment. We have amateur artists and amateur musicians – so why not amateur writers? I am sure this can be very rewarding, and, further, with the persistence you talk about, the amateur writer can be capable of producing fine work. What worries me is the idea that seems to me prevalent that literature is all about “self-expression”; and that if you can “give voice” to your experiences, that, in itself, is literature. And in an age when the labels one wears are seen as defining one’s person, writing seems little more at times than declaring and asserting one’s group identity. Literary quality barely enters into this. “What is quality then?” some may sneer. There is, of course, no direct answer to this: this is why we debate and discuss literature. But the very fact that the question of “what makes literature?” can be discussed without even a mention of quality is, sadly, not atypical.

      Increasingly, it seems to me, we are failing to distinguish, to discriminate. Books are praised because they “give voice” to certain experiences. The question of what constitutes quality is not a question that will ever be fully answered, and it is, for that reason, an endlessly fascinating question, but many commentators, it seems to me, do not seem very interested in addressing it.

      And, of course, it’s all about “entertainment” – what you enjoy. A recent books feature in the Guardian ended with this:

      As one 20-something plaintively said … “People should just enjoy what they enjoy.” Who cares how we define it.

      Is there really any point thinking about literature, discussing it, debating it – in short, taking literature seriously – if that is all it comes down to?

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on August 27, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    mediocrity is misunderestimated.

    Reply

  6. In my experience, the situation is even worse with poetry, and it’s easy to deduce why.
    For several years now, whenever somebody says s/he is writing poetry my initial reaction is fear. I fight it, but it seems that these people work hard to prove that fear is indeed justified.
    Not even a couple of brilliant professors (one of them, actually, a renowned Bosnian poet) managed to prevent a publication of some verses or make the poets in question ”see”.
    It’s bewildering.

    Reply

    • Posted by alan on August 29, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      “poetry fetter’d fetters the human race” – William Blake
      Anti-rationalism has quite a pedigree in poetry and I don’t see how that doesn’t encourage anti-criticism.
      I like some of Blake’s stuff but don’t have a clue about the rest. I wonder how he decided if anything he wrote was any good – revelation ?

      Reply

      • Denis Healey, interviewed in his nineties, said that there were “four willies” that helped him keep going – Willie Shakespeare, Willie Blake, Willie Wordsworth, and Willie Butler Yeats.

        I must admit I never got any further with Blake than his “greatest hits”. I’m sure he is a writer worth the trouble – but yes, he always has seemed a bit odd to me.

    • Hello Anna, good to see you here!

      I did not mean to decry all amateur writing, by any means. After all, writing is not a profession that one qualifies for – like law or medicine: all writers were amateur once. But there does seem a curious idea prevalent that anyone can write: all they need to do is sit down and start.

      I was being a bit facetious in my post above: the time I spent in my youth trying to write was by no means wasted – it made me realise just how damn difficult it was even to achieve basic competence. And it increased my admiration of various writers I was reading. It made me realise also the sloppiness of much that’s around.

      Your story about those who cannot see how poor their poetry is reminded me of the first act of Molière’s Le Misanthrope. Perhaps Alceste’s way of dealing with Philinte is the only possible way of dealing with the Philintes of this world!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Hello Himandri!

        Thank you, it is good to be here!

        Decrying amateur writing was not on my mind either. Far from it.
        I only wished to communicate a piece of my own experience, an observation. People I mentioned are drawn to a certain, very bohemian image of a poet, and they are good at mimicking the act (attitude, appearance), but they lack substance. It becomes so painfully evident when one tries to talk about poetry with them. If their poetry was not an evidence enough, that is..

        At the core of it lies the lack of detachment, the lack of constructive (auto-) criticism, I think. Also, it’s the lack of reading. Is it possible to be a (good) writer without being a (perceiving) reader?.. You wrote: ”after a few months, I realized for myself just how shite it was”. In case of one of these ”poets” it’s been eight years since a professor pointed out the flaws in his writing. Poetry is still poor, no realization at sight. It’s simply astonishing.

        Concerning ”giving voice” to an identity/an experience – I was reminded of Rabih Alameddine’s anger while telling about a critic calling his novel a bridge to an Arab soul: ”What the f*** is an Arab soul?”.
        It’s interesting to think how people form notions as these..

        Alceste and Philinte.. I actually had a similar scene happening a month ago. My friend and I were listening to a jazz interpretation. We both agreed it was pretty bad, obviously lifeless – the singer (who was my friend’s acquaintance) seemed to have no interest in what she was singing. After the performance, the singer was passing by and my friend greeted her, continuing then with a wordy praise. I was puzzled, so I confronted her. She said: ”I know!.. I don’t know why I did that.” It was neither time nor place to discuss things further so I left it at that.
        It would be good to revisit Le Misanthrope!

        Best,
        Anna

      • Hello Anna, it was only after hitting the “post” button that it struck me that I might have been a trifle unfair to amateur writers.

        I, too, often wonder why it is so many who clearly have little or no talent seem so unable to see it. I don’t mean that you have to be as good as the best – most, obviously, aren’t – but reading some of the best – or even some of the better – writers should tell you just how much there is to the art of writing. It doesn’t have to be serious novels either: even if your aim is solely to entertain, it takes an awful lot of skill to produce a good piece of entertainment. It seems to me that those who imagine that one only needs to sit down for a few hours to produce something worth reading either haven’t read much, or read perceptively.

        And indeed – what the fuck is an Arab soul? Do people really stop being individuals when they come from a background different to one’s own? I read an awful piece recently by a Scottish writer who happens to be a nationalist who opined that Scottish writing is about “discovering the nature of Scottishness” – or something equally fascinating – and I couldn’t help thinking to myself “How dreary!” It’s all this identity politics, I’m afraid: if one is defined by the circumstances of one’s birth, then what could one possibly turn to except … the circumstances of one’s birth? It’s also given rise to the idea that artistic expression is not about looking out into the world, but, rather, about gazing into one’s own navel.

        But then again, we do live in an age of self-absorption. Even this blog, which pretends at times to be a literary blog, is really no more than a selfie with words! 🙂

        All the best, Himadri

  7. Posted by obooki on September 2, 2016 at 12:34 am

    Great stuff! Your words really encourage me to get on with the novella I’ve been writing for far too long, so I can shove it down the throats of my friends until they retch. (I have some pretty weird friends, who from time to time demand to know when it is I am actually going to show them something I’ve written, as if they’re truly interested).

    My opinion on this matter varies according to mood. Sometimes I’m inclined to think the worst my book will achieve is to add to the breadth of mediocrity that is the totality of modern literature and I will be doing little overall harm however bad it is. And other times I think that you shouldn’t really publish anything unless you feel it’s at least as good as Shakespeare.

    Reply

    • Obooki, I cannot of course comment on your fiction – not having read it – but I’m willing to bet anything you want that it is of far superior quality to the stuff I tried to write all those years ago, and of far, far superior quality to my friends’ efforts that I was forced to read simply because I was too timid to say “no”.

      All writers, even Will Shakespeare, we’re amateur writers once. All I ask is that writing be judged in terms of literary quality, rather than in terms of the experiences to which it “gives voice”. And that we recognise that we do not, all of us, have a novel in us, any more than we all have a sculpture or a symphony in us. To suggest that anyone could write a novel if only they sat down and applied themselves is to set the bar for creativity so low as to render the very concept meaningless.

      I do have a respect for creativity, and for those who really are capable of writing novels. What I know is I am not amongst them, and neither are those who seem to imagine that “giving voice” to their experience is sufficient.

      Reply

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