Tuesday, 19 April 2011

My fiction addiction

A few days ago I made a lunchtime pilgrimage to the nearest branch of Waterstone’s to satisfy what I can only call a craving for fiction.

I’d been reading a non-fiction book, JB Priestley’s English Journey. I’m a big fan of Priestley’s novels, and I like his voice, and I’d been trying to get a copy of his famous – but out of print – travelogue for a while. Finally I was given a dog-eared old hardback for Christmas, which I got about 100 pages into before starting to feel restless.

That’s not a reflection on the book at all, but it’s a common experience for me when reading non-fiction. I know this is a golden age for non-fiction, and I do occasionally buy and read a book on sport or music or history, or whatever takes my fancy. But however good they are, I never look forward to reading them the way I do when I’ve got a novel on the go.

I tend to read books on the train home after work. If I’m in the middle of a novel, I start to feel a tingle of anticipation the moment I leave the office, and when I reach my stop at the end of the journey, a slight feeling of resentment that I’ve got to stop reading. But if I’m reading a work of non-fiction, the resentment comes at the start of the journey, or at least a feeling of… dutifulness, I suppose.

The truth is that, as I approach the age of 50, reading anything that isn’t made up still feels a bit like homework to me. It’s something I feel I ought to do rather than something I want to do, whereas being immersed in a novel is a wonderful, addictive feeling that I hope I never lose.

I will get back to English Journey before too long, though I suspect I’ll read it in short chunks rather than all the way through. In the meantime, I’m thoroughly absorbed by Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, and looking forward to spending some quality time with it over the Easter break.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The problem with self-belief

I came late to the Jacqueline Howett affair, which has been all over the internet and Twitter this week. Howlett is a self-published author who took exception to an online review of her novel The Greek Seaman. The reviewer praised the story, but criticised her poor spelling and grammar. Howett was furious, and as the to and fro of comments underneath the review grew, it became clear that she really didn’t understand what was wrong with her prose. Her last riposte before comments were closed was a succinct “F*** off”.

There’s been much discussion of this incident, with many commentators focusing on what it says about self-publishing. “This is the very type of behaviour that will continue to tarnish self-published authors as hobbyists,” was a typical comment.

That may or not be true; I’d hope that most readers have the sense to take each author on their own merits, rather than lump all of us in together and dismiss us out of hand. The thing that really struck me about the affair was the extreme self-belief Howett displayed throughout. She never wavered from her position that her grammar and syntax were perfectly comprehensible, despite numerous readers agreeing with the reviewer, who posted a couple of prime examples of garbled nonsense.

Now self-belief is something you have to have as a novelist. To make up a story, write it down, turn it into a book and then ask strangers to read it is an act of extreme presumption; you wouldn’t do it unless you really believed, deep down, that it was worth other people taking the time to read your creation.

On a more basic level, it extends to your writing style. There is no right and wrong when it comes to such things, and any creative writing tutor will tell you that you need to find your own voice. Again, it takes a certain level of self-belief to foist that voice on others.

The corollary of that is that you need a level of self-awareness to go alongside it – the self-awareness, for example, to realise that not everyone is going to like the way you write. (Not taking offence when that happens helps, too.) It’s a difficult balance, because self-awareness can easily tip into self-doubt (we writers are fragile beings), and then you’re stuffed.

Ultimately, Howett’s ravings display an extreme example of self-belief taken too far. She is so passionate about her novel that she has become blind to its flaws. A bit of self-awareness would go a long way, in this case.

Mind you, some grammar lessons would help, too.