It strikes me that, as time goes on, the gap between these ‘weekly’ columns grows longer and longer. It’s not deliberate, I hasten to add; instead, it’s simply the case that I find I have less and less to say that I haven’t said already, and the time in which I have to say it grows shorter and shorter. There are books and stories to write (and books and stories to read), and I realize that some of those who glance at these occasional pieces might well feel the same way. I don’t want to waste their time with thoughts jotted down simply for the sake of it...
I’m writing this in an Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine. I’ve retreated to the city to finish revising THE LOVERS, as there are few distractions here, and I find it easier to slip into a routine in which writing and rewriting take up the bulk of my day. But, prior to arriving here, I spent a week doing a number of literary festivals in Canada, and it was an enlightening, if sometimes frustrating, experience.
For the most part, mystery writers tend to spend most of their time with other mystery writers. There are dedicated mystery conventions during which we can consort with like-minded souls, and even when we do venture into the more rarified atmosphere of literary festivals, we tend to be corralled with our own kind, which is unfortunate and reflects a tendency among festival organizers to assume that a) mystery fiction is of no interest to anyone other than hardcore devotees; and b) that mystery authors have nothing to add to larger discussions of literature and writing, due to general ignorance of anything beyond mystery fiction, and a lack of interest in anything other than who was murdered, and how.
Thus, the Canadian experience, although very pleasant in many ways (almost without exception, everyone involved in organizing these Candian festivals was unfailingly kind, polite and well-read, and I have rarely been treated better anywhere as a writer), also proved to be remarkably disheartening in others, if revealing of an attitude towards mystery writers and mystery fiction that some of us had hoped was largely a thing of the past.
1) At a literary salon – I know, I know, but I’d agreed to attend, and I am, if nothing else, a man of my word, most of the time - I listen as a young Canadian writer expresses the view that mystery fiction has no business being nominated for literary prizes on the grounds that, well, it just sells too many copies, and therefore mystery writers have no need of the acclaim and the (often modest) financial rewards that accompany such prizes. When I point out to him that such an argument would also exclude, say, Salman Rusdie from consideration for the Booker Prize, he smirks and responds: “But Rusdie wasn’t nominated for the Booker Prize this year…”
And everyone in the room laughs.
2) A fellow Irish author enquires how I go about constructing a mystery narrative, given that it requires the farming out of information at certain intervals. I reply that I don’t plan it at all, and instead the revelations in question occur in part both naturally in the course of the initial draft and are also subject to revision during the process of rewriting as the heart of the narrative gradually reveals itself. I make the point that it is no different from the way in which a literary author approaches a book, and note the fact that his own most recent novel depends upon a series of revelations about an act of startling violence that has occurred many years in the past, so the difference between our texts is hardly as significant as he might believe. He doesn’t even answer, but simply turns around and walks away, as if appalled that I might suggest any degree of commonality between us.
3) A British novelist, a first-time author, admits that he has never, until recently, read a mystery novel, but having read one he now understands the appeal of the genre. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, he suggests. It’s about excitement, and nothing more. He doesn’t tell the audience which particular mystery novel he has read, or why he considers it representative of a
genre of which, by his own admission, he knows nothing.
4) A young American novelist, one whom I can only hope was drunk at the time, commences a spectacularly ignorant attack on genre fiction. Even allowing for any possible intake of alcohol, she is quite stunningly rude. Her basic argument, if I understand it correctly, is that mystery fiction works according to a basic template: in her immortal words, “something happens ...”
Once I have managed to lock my jaw back into place, I try to follow her argument to its logical conclusion. If the criticism of mystery fiction is that something happens, then the defence of her particular brand of literary fiction must be that nothing happens. I try to recall the last time I enjoyed a narrative in which nothing happened, and, eventually, admit failure. Even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (a play of which it was famously remarked that nothing happens – twice) is full of incident, and that is as close as I can get to an apparently uneventful narrative that works.
Before I can raise this point, an individual involved at the highest level with the organization of the festival in question intervenes. He is someone whom I rather like, but as I listen to what he has to say I have to make a conscious effort to separate the individual from his words. He posits that mystery fiction is inferior to literary fiction because literary writers “hone” their work. They fret about it, reworking it time and time again, whereas genre writers simply churn out novels. With each book, literary writers are forced to reinvent the wheel, discarding all that went before in favor of an entirely new construct. They are original, while genre writers are essentially imitative.
Eventually, I just give up and go to bed. Life, I feel, is far too short, and I've heard so much of this before. The tension between literary and genre fiction, however spurious those labels may be, will continue not only long after I go to bed on such occasions, but probably long after I'm dead, too.
Which brings us back to Maine, and an Italian restaurant. Today, I have spent seven hours working on the draft of THE LOVERS. I will do the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. To give myself a break, I have begun writing something else, but my concentration upon this second book is not complete. Even when I am not working on THE LOVERS, it seems to occupy the bulk of my time. I am now on my sixth start-to-finish draft of the book. Before it reaches my publishers, I anticipate that I will have gone through it twice more. Even after it reaches them, I will act upon the suggestions of both my British and American editors (two more drafts); I will read the copy edited manuscript, and make changes there (one draft); and I will make the final changes to the typeset work, even if I have to pay for the resetting of the alterations myself, when it is eventually presented to me (the final draft).
I make that twelve drafts. By any stretch of the imagination, I think that counts as honing my work, and I will do so beset by all of the doubts about its worth that, I assume, trouble my literary colleagues. I manage to fit all of these drafts into one year (the original starting point for that unfortunate discussion about the value of genre v literary fiction) because, quite frankly, I work hard. I come from a journalistic background, and I believe that art and craft are not mutually exclusive. One works at one’s craft, and one hopes that, along the way, art may possibly emerge. Even if it does not, one can still take pride in the fact that one has done one’s best.
So to hell with all of the rest. When THE LOVERS eventually appears, I will know that I have done my best, despite its inevitable flaws. And I will learn from those mistakes, and I will apply what I have learned to what I do next. I know that I value what I do as much as any literary writers, and I put my heart and soul into it, just as much as they do.
And besides, I’ll probably sell more copies than most of those writers will anyway, even if it does render me ineligible for prizes in the new world order being planned by Canadians . . .
This week John read
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
and listened to
Still Crooked by Crooked Still
Shrink by The Notwist
Cardinology by Ryan Adams