Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 5, 2017

Is being a novelist a profession?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:45 am

A motivation in my turning to fiction after a quarter of a century as a journalist and non-fiction author was noting the comment by the great US author Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

At about the same time, I read her classic novel Beloved. It was a difficult read for me; indeed I imagine for anyone unfamiliar with the southern US dialect, though I have read widely about colonialism, segregation and slavery, which helped me understand the context. The accent was not the only challenge; the narrative switches in time, by many years, with the briefest clue as to when a change had been made. Beloved was a dense and difficult read. It was also poetic, haunting and beautiful. I was glad to have completed it, even though I would have needed a few days’ guidance by an academic to have appreciated all dimensions.

I have followed Toni Morrison’s advice, though not imitated her style (not that I could). The two novels I have had published are accessible, with a recognizable arc and, I’m told, genuinely funny in places.

That does not make me an inverted intellectual snob, however. I strongly defend the role of literature, like that of Morrison, or TS Eliot or James Joyce before, that explores new narrative forms, introduces complex subjects in oblique ways, and that may require interpretation. The world would be a duller place if all literature were accessible and to a format, and we would cease to be learning and growing.

I have long argued, however, that the distinction between literary and popular fiction is valid only at the extremes, when you are comparing Joyce to Jeffrey Archer. In between, there’s a huge grey area. There are many ‘literary’ tomes that are contrived and superficial, and many ‘popular’ authors whose characters touch unexpected depths, in poignant reflection or philosophical musing.

The snobbery towards comedy is particularly bizarre, and would not be recognized by earlier generations. No comedy will ever win the Oscars or the Booker these days, but consider the following historical classics that contain laugh-out loud humour: Don Quixote, Great Expectations, La Peste. Today, everyone has to be unrelentingly grim, especially if one aspires to a short-listing.

This is accompanied by the rise and rise of the creative writing course, including Masters and even a PhD. There is an increasing tendency to view novel-writing as a career like medicine or accountancy, for which one studies a body of knowledge and learns the craft. Literary agents now recruit graduates of such courses, like corporate personnel departments hiring from the business schools.

This makes me uneasy, and not only out of self-interest, given that I am almost entirely self-taught as a novelist. I don’t think literature is directly comparable to a formal profession; it is more akin to being an entrepreneur – many of whom dropped out of school or university. Now, there is much craft to be learned in novel-writing, and much to be gained from formal study, but few creative writing graduates are as poetic or gifted as Toni Morrison, and downplaying the value of the lived experience may be having a stultifying effect.

In recent years, I have read many historical novels, written by authors probably cleverer and certainly more learned than me, but who have spent too long on creative writing courses. The books lacked passion, did not seem to be informed by the lived experience, and the meticulous research was too obviously on display – in one example, some details of the export industry of the 1890s was smuggled unconvincingly into direct speech.

This type of reading experience led me to conclude that the book I wished to read wasn’t being written, so I’d better bloody well do it myself. This would be a book that is contemporary, realistic, with convincing characters, feeling out of place because the narratives they told themselves weren’t working any more, giving rise to major life decisions, well judged or otherwise.

And I wanted my books to be funny. To me, humour and depth are close twins. Another guiding principle is to draw upon extreme emotions that I and people close to me have felt. It’s hard to convey the depths of ecstasy and despair on the basis of library research. Without emotion, how can you engage the reader? Another important theme for me is the importance of, and the inescapability of, personal beliefs.

I am immensely proud to have received a rather better critical reaction than I dared hope for, including a cover quote for my second novel, Marching on Together, from Louis de Bernieres. I continue to receive rejections from agents and literary festivals, but I can now honestly say that the literary credentials of at least one individual who rated my work far outweigh those of the folk who do not. Perhaps I can be generous to myself and conclude that my books are merely unfashionable, rather than lacking in literary merit. And, no, I won’t be signing up to any creative writing classes. I would rather listen to my readers.

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