Saturday, April 26, 2014

Novels about writing.

It's interesting that, as John Dugdale says in today's Guardian Saturday Review, 'literature about literature' is booming. It's not only the novels openly depicting the great writers, of which there has been a spate lately, he says, but fictions depicting more generally the world of writing and writers, such as Hanif Kureishi's recent The Last Word and a forthcoming novel by that wonderful writer Edward St Aubyn about the world of literary prizes. Last year, of course, Nicholas Royle published his much admired novel about the world of University Creative Writing (in which yours truly - or rather an approximation of yours truly - makes a couple of cameo appearances).

I think it's no surprise, and I've never understood the prejudice against it. 'Oh God, novels about writing!' a literary agent once commented to me with a groan - though I don't think he was expressing a personal prejudice, rather a general industry perception at the time of the unsaleability of such books. It was a wrong perception, I think, and one based in a view of writers and the public as Us and Them.

I don't think for a moment the public sees it like that. I remember as a child from an ordinary background avidly reading novels with an eye on the notion of becoming a novelist myself: I didn't feel the least different from the novelist I was reading and his or her world: the greatness of the writing drew me right into his or her psyche, and I identified, not just with the characters, but with the writer, and any novel about writing would have really pressed my button. And how many people, ordinary people, have you heard casually mentioning they could write a novel/wouldn't mind writing a novel one day? Plenty have said it to me: it's usually the first thing they say after they learn I'm a writer - milkmen, shopkeepers, the lot. And what about the plethora of Creative Writing students? Most of the casual commenters won't bother, and aren't even saying it seriously, but it shows that the whole idea of novel-writing is interesting to them and that they certainly haven't written it off as something that excludes them. Apart from that, though, story-telling is hard-wired in us; we're all story-tellers and we all tell stories all the time - to entertain, to promote or save ourselves or others etc etc, in our day-to-day lives. And in turn we are affected by the story-telling of others - the images they have of us, the truths and lies they tell. So many dramas - soaps that people are entirely hooked on - are subtly based on the notion of story-telling as the engine of life, the effects that people can have on each other's lives by the stories they tell about others and themselves. Who could not be interested in that? (And I have to say it's a major theme for me in my writing.) Novel-writing is the dramatic extension of that (and after all, a major storyline of Neighbours once was a character - a very ordinary girl - becoming a novelist): it's the stories we tell set in stone (or paper or Kindle), and how much more dynamic can be the effect of that? Which is why the window cleaner tells me he wants to write a novel. Novels unpicking the effects of published and unpublished stories, as Royle's so cleverly does, can only therefore be interesting to all.
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