Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Carlo Gebler isn't just a whinger

At 5.30 on Monday I typed the final full stop on my current novel. Well, that's academic, really. What I mean is that I got to the end of this draft;  I'll have to go back and edit. But it was a watershed moment: it's been an all-consuming project since I started redrafting in January. My life has been on hold: I have forgotten to pay bills, forgotten to shop for food, been unable to get my head around anything much else, including blogging. I've found it hard to answer emails. Sometimes, when I've turned to tackle writing an article or report, my brain has balked and felt faint, and I've had to kick it forcibly forward. I've had to force myself to read the books for our reading group. I have seen things lying around the house, and the house getting untidier and untidier, but have somehow not had the space in my head to negotiate picking them up and putting them away. I have forgotten to do the laundry and kept finding myself without clean knickers. Every so often we've put up a visitor who comes to work in Manchester a couple of days a week, and taking afternoons out to get the house a bit straight and clean the loo and sinks and get some food in has seemed a ridiculous stress. I have thought of little else; I have woken in the night with new insights, sometimes I haven't slept well because it's been going round and round in my brain. For the first time in my life I have stopped wanting to go out. Every evening I have sat exhausted but on edge, written out but unable to put my mind to anything else, and indeed necessarily thinking of next day's writing, just waiting for bed in order to get up and start again. The whole time I have been writing there has been building work across the road from my writing window, but I haven't even heard the sounds of sawing and drilling and the clanking of the skips coming and going, I've been so involved. It's been impossible, time-wise and in terms of intellectual and creative energy, to keep up promotion of my published books.

I think I've been a bit mad. Today, having finished, I realise that I haven't been standing or sitting straight, I've been physically curled up around this thing I've been brooding and nurturing.

I couldn't have worked like this when I was teaching or when I had children at home. Maybe I would still have done it, but much more slowly, though I doubt it: an earlier draft of this novel was written under such circumstances and it didn't gel, and I had to abandon it until I had better conditions. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this draft works, but I know it's a lot better, more organic, and to achieve that it's needed the time and concentration and peace mourned recently by Carlo Gebler.

And it's been a huge slog. It hasn't felt like it because I've been so driven, but yesterday, the first day after finishing, I found I was exhausted, and had to sleep for most of the afternoon. I know I'm tremendously lucky to have had the chance to work like this, to be doing what I want to do to the exclusion of all else, since most writers don't have the chance, but the fact that it has been a slog and has taken so much out of my life shows that when writers have to work at other things to live, they and their art, as Gebler points out, are under tremendous stress.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What publishers don't know

Lionel Shriver writes in today's Guardian about the experience of having a novel rejected by several literary agents and thirty different publishers, only to have it end up a bestseller and turned into a film - the history of We Need to Talk About Kevin. The success of the book, she says, has been down to word of mouth:
I owe thanks to a thoughtful, sophisticated readership hungry for challenging subject matter, for honest portrayals of parenthood, and for fiction whose meaning is neither obvious nor morally pat. This peculiar, tortured novel was an unlikely bestseller, and has benefited from numerous individual readers with independent tastes who have hand sold it. I've met many of these readers, and they've confirmed my view that the publishing industry routinely underestimates book buyers, especially women, who don't all want to read girly pap.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing, earning and psychic space.

Facebook and Twitter have been buzzing over the searingly honest article on Some Blind Alleys by Carlo Gebler, in which he charts his progress/descent from what he calls an 'author', writing with a 'proper function of [the] imagination', to professional writer no longer able to 'drift off into the mild trance' required for 'honest' reading and writing. A precis of the article wouldn't do it justice, and it's worth reading in full, but I will quote the passage in which he lists the pressures forcing this change:
I am so fucked off with how the world has gone to the dogs and in particular that little bit of the world I think I care about most, which is the Kingdom of Literature: for on top of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, all sorts of other deleterious developments have worsened the lot of writers (at least in these islands) over the last fifteen years, among which, and in no particular order, are the following: the rise of branding; the enslavement of publishers to media endorsement by celebrity presenters; the obsession with the physical appearance of writers which in turn has meant publishers demand ever younger, ever more photogenic authors; the decline of the editor in publishing houses in order to save money; the abandonment by publishers of the idea that writers have lifelong careers and that given the right support over a lengthy period they can develop; the failure of payment for literary endeavour either to keep pace with inflation or to reflect the actual amount of labour involved in literary production; the atrophy of community (writers have never been more marginal and their enterprise more quixotic and ridiculous); and, finally, the eclipse of literary forms that once helped writers to survive, such as the short story, especially the short story broadcast on radio.
This all has such strong personal relevance for me, and in the spirit of Gebler's honesty I'll explain why. For my first published short story I got £50 from the Transatlantic Review, and like Gebler I wrote it in a private trance after a childhood and young adulthood of receptive reading. Ten years later I too was teaching creative writing and editing and writing reports and reviews. I was no longer writing short stories - the lit mags were all dying and no one was paying for them any more. I was writing radio plays, because they did pay, and writing them increasingly according to the marketing notions of commissioning editors without literary backgrounds and concerned with focus groups. I was running around in the kind of circles Gebler describes, hyped up, with that attitude he describes, an aggressive acquisitive kind of creativity, and no longer receptive to my unconscious in the way that is conducive to true art.

In the end I came to the decision that unless I gave up the idea of being able to keep myself and stopped all this extraneous activity I was never going to get back to that truly productive 'imaginative trance'. It's difficult to say publicly that it went against the grain to be kept by my partner, since to other writers, including I imagine Gebler, that's an enviable option they don't have, but I didn't find it easy to give up my financial independence. As a result, though, it has mattered less to me that being published by a small literary publisher (which I am) means basically making no money on one's writing. At least it has meant that I can concentrate again at last in the right way and produce work with which I can be truly happy. And at long last I've found the psychic space to sink properly into a longer novel for which I previously didn't have the time or headspace - though it's required so much that I've neglected this blog recently, and for that I apologise...

Is this where we've got then? To a point where only those who are kept can afford to write exclusively and with proper attention - unless, that is,  they write commercial fiction?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Chance to see Faber archive

I've only just found out about this, and there's only until midnight on Sunday to do it, but I thought I'd draw your attention to this great Museums at Night competition - a draw in which the prize is a night being taken round the amazing archive of publisher Faber. Really, some of my favourite writing has been published by Faber, and I think this would be just a wonderful thing to do. Here are some of the details from the website:
Archivist Robert Brown will take five lucky winners on a journey through 80 years of treasures held in the publishing giant's London office at Bloomsbury House, which is not normally open to the public.

Faber and Faber's unique publishing archive ranges from its famous early twentieth century poetry collection including manuscripts of TS Eliot and WH Auden to books on farming, gardening, art and architecture.

The evening will conclude with an intimate poetry reading by one of Faber's most acclaimed poets, Jo Shapcott [recent winner of the Costa with her collection Of Mutability].
A photo of a woman staring into camera
Jo Shapcott 
The event will take place between 6.30pm and 7.30 pm on Friday May 13 at the Faber Archive in London.

To enter, click here.

The competition closes at midnight on Sunday May 8 2011.
 Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines