Friday, December 21, 2007

The Response

My American and British editors have now read, and offered their opinions on, THE REAPERS. The manuscript went out to them last month and, as is usually the case, my British editor read it first, and then my American editor followed with her response a little later.

Waiting to hear what they think of a manuscript does nothing to contribute to a stress-free lifestyle on my part. As I've said before, I have a nagging fear that I'm a bit of a fraud, and that the latest novel will be the one that at last exposes my fraudulence and ineptitude to my editors. That fear is compounded when a book deviates in any way from what has gone before, as THE REAPERS does. It's not quite an 'entertainment', to borrow Graham Greene's description of his less tortured novels, but it is lighter than, say, THE UNQUIET. As soon as it went out to the editors, and my agent, I think I began tensing for the blow to come.

As it happens, though, no blows have landed. Both of my editors - and my beloved agent - seem very happy with the manuscript, and have sent it straight into production. That doesn't mean the book is already rolling off the presses, but it has gone to copy editors, and when the copy edited manuscripts are returned to me they will have my editors' comments included. There will be problems to be addressed, questions to be answered, but I won't have to tear the book apart, and tear my hair out in the process.

It is a relief. While my editors are delicate about such matters, and diplomatic in their approaches, I'm certain that, were there significant problems with my manuscript, they would let me know, even to the extent of postponing publication if necessary. (In fact, I asked one of my editors that very question, and she made it quite clear that I didn't have some authorial 'get-out-of-jail-free' card if problems arose.) It was reassuring to hear. Sometimes I will read a book by a big-name author and wonder just how much editing was done, if any. It doesn't do the author any favours in the long run, even if it allows him, or her, to do a little less work in the short term.

So now I have a worry-free Christmas, relatively speaking. Actually, that's not true. Instead of worrying about THE REAPERS, I'm just worrying about the next book instead. I'll probably make a start on it over the Christmas holidays, as my diary for next year is already filling up and I'd like to get a little writing done before I start travelling again. I think I even have a title for the new book, although it may change as the writing progresses. I'm quite looking forward to writing it. Although Parker figures in THE REAPERS, it's not told from his point of view. It will be good to inhabit his consciousness again. Troubling, but fulfilling . . .

This week John read:

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

and listened to:

Kurr by Amina

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

To Be, or Not To Be (A Classic)

I've been wondering what constitutes a 'classic' of fiction. I hasten to add that this isn't some random problem to be addressed, in case readers are entertaining visions of me seated in my smoking jacket, puffing on a pipe and thinking 'deep' thoughts as a matter of course. I don't own a smoking jacket, and I don't think I'd have the patience to smoke a pipe. (My grandfather was a pipe smoker, and seemed to spend large portions of his day either preparing to light his pipe, or trying to keep it lit, but very little of it actually smoking the pipe itself.)

Anyway, the question of when, or why, a book comes to be considered a classic arose in the context of the book I have just finished: Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. The novel in question, which deals with the building of a cathedral, among other things, is adorned on its front cover with the words 'THE CLASSIC MASTERPIECE', which would seem to indicate that someone, somewhere, even allowing for the usual overenthusiasm of publishers, feels that The Pillars of the Earth is both a classic and,indeed, a masterpiece.

Now I had never read a Ken Follett novel before this one. In fact, my only knowledge of Ken Follett is that he is the archetypal 'champagne Socialist', a wealthy supporter of the British Labour party, and that he wrote The Eye of the Needle, which was made into an okayish film starring Donald Sutherland. I picked up The Pillars of the Earth because I'd seen the media coverage of its recently published sequel, and because I'm kind of a sucker for a good historical novel.

And here's the thing: The Pillars of the Earth is a well-researched, very entertaining read. I flew through its 1100 pages in under a week, and, the odd scene of rape or attempted rape apart, enjoyed it immensely. But is it a classic? Well, no, I don't think so. Follett isn't the world's greatest prose stylist, and some of the characterisation is a bit perfunctory. If a book is truly to be considered a classic, then issues like prose style and characterisation come into play. It's not enough simply to be able to tell a good yarn. Classic, or masterpiece, status demands something more than that.

Is it a masterpiece? Well, that's a different matter. A masterpiece,in the context of art, is an artist's greatest piece of work. As I've said, I haven't read any otherbooks by Ken Follett, so I can't say that The Pillars of the Earth is his greatest achievement. From what I've read about the novel, and Follett, I suspect that it is. If he's proud of it, he has good reason to be. It's a fine read.

I'm just wondering if The Pillars of the Earth actually needs to be a
classic. It does what it does exceptionally well. It keeps the reader turning the pages. I now know a lot about cathedral building: not enough to attempt to build one myself, obviously, but I understand a little more about the thinking behind the construction of cathedrals. I also know that I'm very grateful not to have lived during the period in which the novel is set (roughly the middle of the 12th century). I also recognise that, at some point in the future, I'm going to read the sequel, and I'll probably thoroughly enjoy that too.

But it seems to me that the urge to confer classic status upon The Pillars of the Earth rather does Follett an injustice. It raises expectations that the novel itself simply can't fulfill. This is not War and Peace. It is not Bleak House, or Vanity Fair, or any one of the other books that spring to mind when the words 'masterpiece' and 'classic' are used to refer to a work of fiction. I just don't think it's in that league, but then very few books are.

The use of the terms 'masterpiece' and 'classic' in the context of The
Pillars of the Earth
also suggests a certain inferiority complex on the part of one or more people involved with the publication of the book, although not necessarily Follett himself. It's clearly not enough that the book is gripping, and well-researched, and eminently readable. It has to be something more than that, something greater. Its status must be elevated, even if that elevation threatens to undo the writer, and the novel, in the process. That seems to me to be a bit of shame . . .

This week John read:

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

and listened to:
Going to Where the Tea Trees Are by Peter Von Poehl (one of the best 'lost' records of the year, I think . . .)