Hazel McHaffie

Zadie Smith

Why do we do it?

Writing’s a strange occupation. Like no other.

I’ve been catching up on the literary magazines, prompting various ruminations-from-the-recovery-couch this week which I thought I’d share with you, but, please, don’t read this as a disgruntled gripe. It’s a calm reflective autumnal sharing from one who’s in the privileged position of not seeking fame, not needing to pay the bills from royalties, not under outside pressure to produce the goods. I’m a compulsive writer, I thrive on simple feedback from satisfied readers, sharing an evening with a group of avid readers over wine and one of my novels, debating serious issues with those challenged by one of my opinion pieces. However, I am acutely mindful of others trying to carve a career in the perilous world of words; I care about the impact of anomalies and injustices on them. So here goes – a few reflections on the occupation of writing fiction.

There are no real goal posts, precious few rules, and even those committed to textbooks/how-to-books are rather unofficial and fluid and subject to modification, changing depending on the hands wielding the red pen or waving the chequebook. An indefinable mysterious ‘something’ separates out the brilliant from the excellent, the good from the mediocre. Style? Brio? Panache? Whatever. Every single new effort launches itself into this unknown abyss in hope, but with no guarantees – not even for the well established household-name author. And with thousands upon thousands of books being published every year the chances of standing out in a crowd are diminishingly rare.

And yet, despite this reality, the world and his live-in-lover and long-lost great-uncle’s mother-in-law seem to think they can be authoritative about a piece of work that someone else has slaved over for years. With no qualifications, no pedigree, no authority whatever, they think nothing of assigning one or two stars, printing a scathing review, and generally rubbishing a carefully-constructed work of fiction, merely on the grounds that it doesn’t appeal to them. And the author is usually frowned on if he/she goes on the defensive.

We writers all have our peccadillos and habits, and outside scrutiny can help to eliminate the most annoying ones. For example, editors will helpfully point out words that an author is rather too fond of, and I’ve done the same thing myself for serious scribblers who’ve asked me to critique their raw work. But should I have done so? Ben Blatt, an American journalist, has subjected a wide range of published fiction to some seriously ruthless data-crunching and he reckons that this is common; every writer uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often.
A few illustrations from published works:
Jane Austencivility
Zadie Smithevil eye
Dan Brownfull circle
Donna Tartttoo good to be true
It’s a bit like a fingerprint. Hmmm, I might need to re-think this one.

I confess I sigh heavily when I see celebrity after celebrity adding ‘writer’ to their list of occupations. Yeah, right! Knowing as I do the skill, hard slog and endless work that goes into even a modest-sized work of fiction, and cringing as I do at the ungrammatical prose of many a famous name at interview, I seriously doubt the authenticity of many of these claims. And I fear it simply feeds into a common perception that ‘anyone’ can write a book. I still have to grit my teeth when ordinary average people tell me they would be writers too if they weren’t busy saving the planet in some other more worthy and important way.

And yet celebrities command top positions with their publishers, landing lucrative contracts, often ousting the real best-selling writers, bagging the front seats in bookshop displays, the key position on the TV couch. How frustrating for master craftsmen to be overtaken by far less competent and deserving competition, to see their own publicity/marketing budgets (hello? do they still exist for ordinary mortals?) diverted to feather the downy nests of the rich and famous. Plenty of well-known established authors have gone public about this injustice/disloyalty, even jumping ship to continue in other more faithful publishing vessels.

Then there’s the whole business of valuing books – and those who create them. Readers want to pay the lowest price possible (mea culpa!). Ninety-nine pence for a work that should cost £8.99? – that’ll do nicely thank you. Absolutely nothing goes to the author who has no salary, no security, no say. Will you come and speak at my bookgroup/ library/evening salon/literary festival? Of course! And after the event … payment? Hello? Nothing/a bunch of flowers/a bottle of wine/a hasty meal/not even expenses. Commonplace.

And yet. And yet. And yet. We continue to write. Because we must. Because we are compelled to do so by some internal driving force. Because there is nothing to beat the exhilaration of stepping into the shoes and minds of protagonists of our own creation, realising our imaginings, hearing readers talk about our characters as if they are real people in their lives – a reward (in my opinion and circumstances) worth so much more than mere pounds and pence.

I love what I do! And as long as other people enjoy my writing, I’m more than happy to share the product of those months of isolation and hard work.

 

 

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Internet addiction

It’s hard to imagine how we’d function nowadays without access to the internet, isn’t it? I wouldn’t even right now be blogging on my website. But recently a number of big names in the writerly world have admitted to taking quite draconian measures to limit exposure to the net. Seems to be the in-thing in fact!

Zadie Smith, for example, in her latest novel, goes so far as to acknowledge a debt to two computer applications that block access to the internet. They helped to ‘create time.’ Hello?

And Jonathan Franzen says: ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.’ Ouch!  This is the chap who’s alleged to have worn a blindfold and earplugs to minimize distraction while he wrote parts of The Corrections. Conjures up brilliant caricatures for any decent cartoonist, huh?

And many other authors – Jojo Moyes, Dave Eggers, Danuta Keane, Stella Duffy to name but a few – all admit to using computer programmes to fight distraction.

OK, I concede that

a) writers need space and peace to concentrate, to think and to hone their prose. Me too.

b) writing can be a pretty lonely experience that drains the personal batteries at times

c) nowadays authors are expected to make contact across the ether with their readers

d) some people find that words flow better using longhand or typewriters.

Fair enough; nothing wrong with that. But what’s going on with Franzen and Smith et all?

Don’t these successful, talented people have any will power? Enough at least to resist the temptation to flick across to the net during writing stints? Aren’t their characters and plots sufficiently enthralling to hold their own interest and concentration? Can’t they just ignore the ping of incoming emails, and twitters, and blogs, and network-messages and whatever, until leisure time? Come on!

OK, OK, OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a Luddite in these matters. But then, I was born long before digital technology became commonplace. My first experience of computers was with mainframes – machines the size of rooms, that required elaborate instructions to change so much as a comma, and vans to take the disks between departments at the university. We developed a healthy respect for their majesty, might and mysteries.

Moreover I grew up in an isolated rural cottage. We made our own fun and entertainment; we were content with our own company; we treasured our privacy. Something of that whole ethos has remained with me and is reflected in my cautious attitude to more recent intrusions inventions like mobile phones and Facebook. I told you I was a Luddite.

Smith and Franzen (sounds like a slightly Dickensian firm of lawyers, doesn’t it?) are, of course, of a generation that has never known a world without personal computers and easy electronic communication. Digital know-how is hard-wired into their brains. What’s more, they’re household names; they’ll have huge fan-bases. Maybe therein lies the difference. Perhaps everyone wants a piece of them.

But in my case, the net, though a truly useful mine of information, is definitely and emphatically not an addiction. I maintain that, as with dictionaries and encyclopaedias, it is not in control, I am.

So why did I fly across to my emails when I heard that ping just now?

 

 

 

 

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