Reading Isn’t Believing

Last year, during lockdown, I wrote a short novel. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a publisher for it. I’m still trying.

Writing (I mean the creative sort) has been my main ambition and motivation for most of my life. I have written plays that have been performed in my home town without disaster. However, the problem with plays is that when they’ve been performed they just disappear. You can’t publish the scripts; who would read them? They remain only as a memory, and probably a dim one.

So I’ve been trying my hand at something more permanent: stories meant to be printed. They haven’t been printed yet, but they will be. There are a lot of mugs out there, and one of them is bound to come across my stuff sooner or later and fall into my trap.

The novel, of course, is my chef d’oeuvre, not to mention my pièce de résistance and so on and so forth. I’ve put into it everything I know, a depressingly feeble crop but, such as it is, my own.

The process of revising it and trying to sell it to a sceptical publishing world has made me think, perhaps more closely than ever before, about my writing and what it means. After all, if I am to persuade the industry that my handful of shrivelled words is worth the purchase, it’s important to be able to articulate why it is that I write as I do.

For me, writing is a way of speaking. I don’t speak well with my mouth. In moments of stress the words clog, and in addition I pause before speaking, which some people take as a signal to speak instead of me. Writing is to me freedom.

I think people waste words. I prefer to write sparingly, which makes for a short book. Another thing that makes for a short book is the stupidity of my mind; I can only hold a fairly simple story in my head, without all the twists and surprises and sub-sub-plots that make for a proper narrative. These, then, are the main reasons my novel is a short one.

Publishers don’t like short novels (which they sniffily call “novellas”). But I do, and they’re the only kind of novel that I’ll ever be able to write. So, while knowing that I am making things difficult for myself, I have no option but to carry on in my quest for a publisher prepared to look at my short novel and perhaps to like it.

Another problem, I think, is that writers writing in the style I favour (the fantastical and the satiric) tend to be what is known as “dark”: that is, enamoured of death and suffering in what sometimes seems a genuinely horrible way. Unfortunately, I can only write of characters when I sympathise with them, and in consequence I can’t bear to make them suffer too much. So in my book I’ve given them a happy ending – a terrible anachronism. What publisher would look at such a thing?

There’s something else as well. I seem to have an approach to writing which really belongs in the past.

I preface my novel with a note, which states: “Everything in this book is wrong.” This is not as flippant as it sounds. It was actually the talisman which enabled me to write the book at all. What it means is: don’t tell me the events in this book couldn’t happen, because I know they couldn’t. It’s a tissue of the impossible from start to finish. I know nothing of the world (I once tweeted: “I don’t write stories about real life, because I’ve never been there”) and if I tried to write about it I know I would get it wrong.

What is more, while my opinions are all of the most wishy-washy liberal sort, I am sure the reader would disagree with at least some of them. Sometimes they irritate even me.

But to me, reading is not a process of absorbing correct things. Every writer I admire gets it wrong somewhere. G K Chesterton, for example, is capable of going from the most sublime wisdom and poetry to the cheapest racism and antisemitism in the space of a phrase. W S Gilbert sometimes has an edge of hard intolerance. Even the great Wodehouse has his bad moments. But that doesn’t mean I have to boycott them. I read them and I take from them what is good, and I leave the rest on the side of my plate.

All I ask is that readers treat my words in the same way.

But I don’t know if that is the right way to read today. It seems sometimes as if one is expected to throw out the good parts along with the bad, and to read only the things that one has been assured are 100% correct. This means that one’s reading can therefore, with safety, be absolutely uncritical.

I can’t guarantee that my book is of that sort; I just can’t. Of course I try my best; but creativity being what it is, how can I be sure that the demons that lurk haven’t also had their say? In fact, I’m pretty sure that they have, sometimes, in the spaces between the words. That is perhaps my biggest worry about my book. And that is really why I needed to tell the reader right from the start that everything I had written was wrong. It was the only way to signal, clearly and unambiguously, the right way of reading me.

As I said right at the beginning: reading isn’t believing.

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2 Comments

  1. Not sure, Andrew, just what it is you’re commenting about — is it that you can’t get your novel published because it has fallen victim to a modern culture that can’t accept a novel is its own self-contained world and like the real world it is a mixture of the good, the bad and the indifferent? If that were so the original Harry Potter, for example, would have stayed unpublished. I’ve just been re-reading Thank You Jeeves after some years and it’s like getting hit between the eyes to realise certain things in it would have had it banned today. Indeed I am actually surprised it hasn’t been. More broadly, novels have always been attacked because they’re not real (meaning they don’t conform with a prevailing view of the world) but the miracle is they have been and continue to be published. There is another alternative about the fate of your novel and maybe you don’t want to contemplate it. As Dirty Harry growled: “A man’s gots to know his limitations.”

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  2. Hi Noel, many thanks for your comments. No, I didn’t mean to say anything like what you seem to have taken from it, and that’s clearly my fault. Such a misunderstanding certainly doesn’t imply any compliment to my writing abilities! I don’t blame the world for the continued non-publication of my novel; sometimes it seems to argue the world’s sterling good sense. What I was trying to say is (clearly) very hard for me to express. Maybe Harry Potter isn’t such a bad example to give after all. I haven’t read any of the books, but I understand there are some people around who would very gladly ban them on account of certain elements which have been interpreted as antisemitic. “Thank You, Jeeves”, as you mention, contains a pretty shocking sub-plot which I don’t think can be read today in the light comic way that is meant. (Rereading “Right Ho, Jeeves” a few months back, I was startled to find even this masterpiece is marred by the N word, right in the middle of its best scene.) I don’t think banning is the right way to go, though. It would be an odd world that permitted the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” but banned “Thank You, Jeeves”! All books are products of their time, and their fallings from grace are part of what make them. (There’s a story by Voltaire in which a man is sent by an angel to Persepolis to decide whether it is so evil that it must be destroyed. He finds in the city a mixture of good and evil, as you would, and when he goes back to the angel he brings with him a beautiful little statue of a horse, made of jewels and precious metals mixed with base metals. He says, “Would you destroy this beautiful statue because parts of it are base?”) As for my own book, it’s as good as I can make it. But, believe me, I have contemplated, often enough, the alternative fate of my novel which you mention. I’m 52 years old and have been trying to write since I was at school, so maybe you will understand that when I was younger I wrote many things which had that fate. Why should anything I make today be any different? Unlike Mr Dirty Harry, I don’t know my limitations; I can only guess at them. For instance, a couple of years ago I would have said I was incapable of writing a novel that I myself didn’t find shamefully bad. That was a limitation that I thought I had, but I find that I am wrong. What others think of it is really still to be seen.

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