Writers, does this happen to you? Catching up with friends, someone will relate an amusing and/or interesting and/or convoluted anecdote. When they reach the end, instead of being satisfied with a few moments’ entertainment, they – or another from among the group – will quip There’s a novel in there somewhere! A novel? Excuse me, but it shouldn’t take a novelist to recognise this is not the case. But is the reference to novels an innocent, albeit clumsy, metaphor, or are nastier issues afoot?
If it’s irritating for novelists to be told by friends and acquaintances that they too could write a novel if they weren’t so busy doing more important things, then think how it must be for poets. Anyone with even a passing interest in words, or emotions, is likely to have composed a poem at some point, whether inspired by a sense of occasion or adolescent angst. You don’t even need a pen or a keyboard when you can juggle those lines in your head.
Blogger and memoirist, Irene Waters, has been collecting memories of ordinary activities across the generations and across the world. Last October’s theme, collections, sparked some interesting reminiscences about stamps, birds’ eggs and the dysfunctional parts of ballpoint pens, to name but a few. The latter came to mind when I was reading about Cathy, the protagonist of the second novel reviewed in this post, and I’ve linked her with Julia, whose unusual life, and posthumous career, is the subject of Orphans of the Carnival, who was less a collector than an object of curiosity herself. I hope you’ll be curious enough to read on.
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
Following last month’s post on reading for my reviews, I thought I’d share a little of what I do with them once they’re written. Obviously the appear on Annecdotal, but where else? Well, there’s Goodreads which drew me in initially as an attractive way of keeping tabs on my reading. Another way I keep track is through the listings on my reading and reviews page although, because I’m better at remembering the book than the author, the alphabetical ordering doesn’t always help. Then there’s Twitter (along with the myriad hashtag days) which can generate some lively discussion and Facebook which, probably because I still don’t know how to work it properly, tends not to. Also, because most of the books I review come from the publishers, I tweet and email them the link; if it’s from one of the Hachette companies involved in Bookbridgr, I also log the review there. That’s quite a lot of admin, but there’s still one glaring omission that troubles me somewhat; it’s not exactly the elephant in the room, but the huge empty space where that elephant should be.
Today’s the day that the internet is going to zing with antidotes to the mammoth cruelty and indifference to suffering that exists in this world. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogathon, launched by Yvonne Spence just over a month ago, has rocketed through the airwaves (or do I mean fibre-optic cables?), enthusing a galaxy of bloggers and tweeters to join in. As a warmup, Charli Mills compiled a virtual anthology of the Carrot Ranchers’ compassion-themed 99-word stories. Mine focused on compassion within marriage (after all, it was Valentine’s Day when I posted) and the self-compassion that’s needed for compassion for others to thrive. My contribution to the 1000 Voices is to elaborate the ideas behind that flash.
It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
What do you understand by the term “a good child”? Does it imply a particular proficiency in getting up to mischief and other childish things? Or does it mean, as for the Saddeq children growing up in Lahore in the new nation of Pakistan, suppressing their own inclinations and desires in favour of their mother’s strict demands? In a divide-a-rule regime reminiscent of the British Raj, the boys, Sully and Jakie, are destined to be doctors, their learning beaten into them by a tutor they nickname, appropriately, Basher, while the girls, Mae and little Lana, hug their mother’s shadow, dressed up like dolls in scratchy frilly dresses unsuitable for the suffocating heat. Until the day they can escape their manipulative mother through marriage for the girls and education abroad for the boys, they have no choice but to comply.
How well-prepared are such good children for their future adult lives? As the novel explores, children who are discouraged from questioning authority might struggle to protect themselves by appropriately saying no. On the surface, the Saddeq offspring are successful: they have careers, relationships, children of their own. But, in different ways, they are still, even in late middle age, the insecure children their mother created, maintaining as wide a distance as they dare from their parents, still scared of their mother when duty calls them “home”. Compulsive helpers, workaholics, conflicted about intimacy; even into old age they continue striving to be good rather than happy.
Writers learn early to be wary of mirrors. It’s painful to have to score through that purple passage eloquently describing our protagonist’s physical appearance from the top of their head to the tips of their toes. When what we took for writerly innovation is revealed to be a cliché; the first time we allow our narrator to look in the mirror, could be the last.
Yet a character who never caught sight of their reflection would be an odd kettle of fish indeed. Plate-glass windows, stainless steel doors: the built environment abounds with reflective surfaces, never mind the mirror above the bathroom sink. Should these be totally out of bounds for writers? Our protagonist’s relationship to mirrors can be useful way of illustrating their character or mood. Are they obsessively drawn to mirrors or avoidant; are they anxiously checking their appearance, or an ordinary woman using lipstick and mascara to compose her outdoor face? Surely it’s the information dump that’s the problem. After all, Elmore Leonard preached against detailed description, not mirrors.
A skilfully employed shiny surface can reflect more than is apparent to the eye. For example, in Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, Frances sees
I recently published a post – no, I’m not saying which one – which I knew was a bit muddled. I had something to say, and it was timely to say it, but I couldn’t marshal my thoughts to express that something in a sufficiently coherent manner. For weeks it had festered on my To do list. I’d bring out my draft now and then to add bits and chop bits and move bits of it around, but it still wasn’t anywhere near how I’d hoped to get it when the idea had first lodged itself in my mind. It wasn’t so dreadful that I wanted to consign it to the scrap heap, but I had to accept I hadn’t the time or the talent to make it zing. So I clicked on Publish and left it for others to judge its worth.
Do we demonstrate a lack of respect for ourselves and our readers when we send out work we consider below par? Or are we being realistic in recognising we can’t perform at our optimum level all the time? Where do we draw the line between acceptable and sloppy, and how do we recognise such a line when we see it?
We need our standards but, as Emma Darwin points out, too much self-criticism and perfectionism is counter-productive as it stops us even trying to create. Yes, we must kill our darlings, but we mustn’t abort them before they’ve had the chance to see what they might become.
Accepting things as they are isn’t tantamount to passive resignation. It’s not the same as giving up. Yet isn’t it rather grandiose to think we have to get everything right? My blog post, along with the rest of my millions of sentences, is insignificant in the overall scheme of things. Good or bad – the universe doesn’t give a shit.
I like the way Justine Musk has drawn on the Icarus myth to illustrate how writers need to forge a path between reaching for the scorching heights of the sun and sinking so low our wings become waterlogged and we come crashing down to earth:
Life's far too complex for a stark division of our experiences into the extremes of success and failure. But this weekend's Guardian Review had seven writers reflecting movingly on their own experiences of falling short of their expectations in a way I know I'll want to come back to. I find it inspiration from knowing that even these denizens of the literary world can be hurt and move on.
I'd like to quote them all: Diana Athill on success in later life after a loss of self-confidence at what should have been her prime; Margaret Atwood on learning from the setbacks; Julian Barnes on misjudging others' lives as failures; Anne Enright on success and failure as both illusionary and real; Will Self in a similar vein on the unreliability of both; and Lionel Shriver on the long apprenticeship of failure and the notion of "giving up well". But you may find other things to highlight, or you may agree with many of the commenters on the webpage, that these successful authors had no right to moan. Having restricted myself to one quote, it's Howard Jacobson's piece that speaks the most to me (must go back and have another attempt at one of his novels):
Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn't art. And of course it is loved as consolation, or a call to
I think this is an issue that lies at the heart of the writing life, at least for literary fiction, and one I'll be coming back to, but (mini existential crisis that nobody else cares about) not sure how to categorise it, as it's more about accepting good enough than tolerating failure.
Meanwhile, since my promised glut of fresh June stories are as tardy as the strawberries my garden, here's an old one on winning and losing that was due a revival. Enjoy!
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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