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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Literary Fiction: is it a special case?

I have worked in many places (here in a motel room in Arizona)
‘The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterpiece in a freezing garret….’ Now there was an opening line guaranteed to grab my attention. I have been impoverished through most of my writing career. I have lived in an attic, and I have written in some very uncomfortable places – in factory canteens, working men’s cafés, freight train brake-vans, at the wheel of a (stationary) Bedford van parked up by sewage works in rural North Lincolnshire where I used to lay rat-poison, and on one memorable occasion up a tree in the Terrace Gardens, Richmond upon Thames. Many of these locations were cold, some were hot, several smoky, all uncomfortable. I don’t claim to have been carving out too many masterpieces, but I was certainly writing: taking notes, making observations and recording conversations. Gathering material.


So this article was clearly going to say something to me. I settled in my chair and read on. This image (of the impoverished writer), I was assured, ‘remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE).’ And it went on to state that, because authors are getting less and less of the publishing pie, ACE propose to support more individual authors… and to increase its support for independent literary fiction publishers.


Why did I feel, immediately, that I wanted to take issue with this? Why do I still feel prickly? I have given it some thought, and I dare say I will give it more. But, for the moment, here are a few things that occur to me.


One, I would like to know how ‘literary fiction’ is defined -  at least by ACE. If they’re going to be throwing money at it, I’d like to get in on the action. Two, why does it deserve greater support than any other form of writing? I would question that, instinctively. Close to thirty years ago I spent a year at the University of New Mexico as part of my bachelor’s degree. I attended graduate level creative writing classes. I assumed then that being a writer, certainly within a higher educational context, meant being a literary writer, churning out high minded, cerebral stuff. I was in for a surprise.


When I attended my first workshop I found myself surrounded by writers, aged 18 to 65, whose subject matter ranged from prison memoirs to drug-running thrillers, a domestic saga set in suburban Albuquerque, a bildungsroman which told the story of the author’s running away to join a circus as the snake-woman, an epic and erotic trilogy based around a Hindu temple prostitute in India at the time of Alexander the Great’s incursions and, amongst several others that I barely recall, a fantasy about hot-rodders pursued by witches in the mountains outside Santa Fe. I thought all this rather strange – until it was pointed out to me that I, with my long sentences and introspection, my avoidance of what you might call action, was the odd one out. And, much as people professed to enjoy my elevated diction, they did occasionally ask, ‘Doesn’t your main character ever get laid or get into fights?’ When one of the class told me that his main writing ambition was to make money, to be the next Stephen King, I caused an outbreak of mirth by asking, in all innocence, ‘Who’s he?’


Later I took the MA at the U of East Anglia. The big one. To this day people ask me what I learned there, and the truth is I cannot tell them. So when I read, as part of this same article, an assertion by Will Self that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation, I paused to reflect. I really don’t think I was taught a damned thing at UEA – although, in fairness to the late Malcolm Bradbury, he did tell me, in an interview I conducted a few years later, that all he wanted to do in setting up the course was to give writers a year in which to be free to write. And that’s what I did, cranking out thousands upon thousands of words every week and balking at the almost insignificant academic component they shoe-horned into the year. God, how I resented that!


But we come back to that question, what is it that annoys me about this talk of literary fiction as a special case? I think there are two main things. One is that, over the past 25 years, I have had to earn my living as a writer by taking whatever job pays the bills. Of all my fellow graduates from 1988-89 (there were ten of us) I am, by one measure, the most successful. I have kept afloat almost exclusively by practising my craft. The cost, however, has been that while I have written over two dozen books, many of those have been ghosted for other people and appeared under their names; a handful more have been self-published and mostly sold in the States (I have a small fan-base in Nebraska); and so far I have produced but a single novel – it came out this year. I cannot tell you whether that is literary or not. Probably not, although there are a few long words in it. But my next one -  that may be.


My second objection to this placing literary fiction on a plinth and to suggesting that its purveyors are worthy of another slice of ACE largesse is that I strongly support the idea that all artists ought to be thrown out of their workplaces from time to time and made to engage with the wider world. Great art comes from direct experience - you might say elemental experience - and the great failing of many an artist today, I suspect, is that they rarely leave the refined atmosphere of the studio, the workshop, the study. If they make a success early on in their career they are often doomed to repeat ever paler versions of that first novel/movie/song for the rest of their careers. One of the first things I learned during my brief career as a writer for a TV soap was that I should avoid solving our characters’ problems, rather that we should enrich the drama of their lives by lobbing the odd shell in their direction. Artists need the same treatment. As a professional writer, I have often fallen on barren times and had to take part-time work – as a barman, a bookie, a lab assistant in the sugar-beet factory – just to stay afloat. I have had to work for entrepreneurs of every stripe, for at least one ex-criminal, for a bounty hunter and a professional sportsman, and while there have been frustrations attached to those deviant passages they have, by and large, expanded my experience and extended my education as a writer. Despite having sold what were unquestionably literary short stories thirty years ago, I never really discovered that I could write fiction until I was asked (and paid, very well paid) to write a sci-fi novel on behalf of a  multi-millionaire Chinese businessman a few years ago. (Trust me, when you’re out there, and desperate, weird things can happen – and thank goodness they do. How else could I have ended up writing a sitcom with a sky-diving Elvis impersonator?)


I’m not sure this is entirely coherent. I was never sure it would be. But the article stirred something up in me. Resentment? Envy? Irritation? I’m not sure. But I feel a bit better now. 

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