Sunday, April 17, 2005

First-time thinker? Robert McCrum on the rush to publication

This blog, this space where light distractions to more substantial work come to put on weight, is probably my main work. I regret this. By the time I produce what I hope will be my main work, even Mary Wesley might wonder why it took me so long.

In the literary editor’s print blog for The Observer, Robert McCrum is critical of what he perceives as a rush to publication.

First novels used to be a cause for celebration. Now, more likely, it is the third, or even the fifth novel that signals the arrival of a new writer of consequence, someone whose creative stamina will stay the course. With this proliferation, critics are asking: what's it all about ? Again, the short answer is: not much. The author may be clever, well-educated and ambitious but too often they seem to have missed a first-class opportunity to practise in private. At the very least, they could do everyone a favour and get a real job.

This eases my impatience and regret. I have a real job instead.

McCrum puts this proliferation down to one thing: For the first time ever, information technology now helps rather than hinders the free flow of self-expression. Where printing a book used to be a complex and costly business, now almost anyone can find someone willing to be their publisher."

I think this latter point might be news even to established authors, and the concealed former point too: does a serious literary editor really believe writing novels is about "self-expression" even in part?

McCrum began the piece with a nostalgic reference to Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, for whom, it was revealed, "there were more important things to do than write plays” (I wrote about McCrum’s coverage of this earlier this year).

That's hardly a sentiment you hear much today he says. For the 21st century, self-expression is all. Nothing, it seems, is more important than writing poems, plays and fiction. Especially fiction. Life itself pales into insignificance alongside this higher calling.

Does anyone else experience the exact opposite? I see and hear this sentiment all the time. People I know – including myself, although I don’t know myself that well - find it difficult to write much because they are too busy working or enjoying what little spare time they have; they want to write, they feel the need quite badly, but there just isn’t time, and anyway life is more important. Writing does get fitted in somehow, in some cases, but it’s certainly not regarded as a "higher calling". Whatever this phrase means, it is regarded suspiciously and lightly ridiculed, hence McCrum’s use of the phrase. So who does McCrum thinks believes the opposite? He doesn’t say. Did he make use of that phrase because it enabled him to purchase the suspicion and ridicule cheaply, without having to make socially uncomfortable references to real people? It seems McCrum is referring to people who have recently published first novels:

Painful though it is to say this, many of those who embark on the novel today seem no more able to write fiction than the weekend shopper who buys a flatpack unit at Ikea can assemble a bookcase. Self-conscious, self-centred, syntactically weak and poorly plotted, these tales are in danger, as Shakespeare put it, in another context, of signifying nothing.

Who are these many, what are their names, what is self-conscious and self-centred about their books, why are syntax and plot so important, and what should be signified that isn’t being signified? So many questions! McCrum doesn’t answer any. An inspired literary editor might have put together a review of five first-time novels and employed a good critic to write prose like acid and dissolve the pretensions of the five upstarts. But evidently McCrum isn’t that kind of editor; perhaps he prefers to remain welcome at London’s literary parties (his higher calling?). Or perhaps the novels might actually turn out to be good and spoil the assumption.

Living authors, it seems, tend to spoil the atmosphere: Once upon a time, the writing of books was part of a crowded and vigorous life producing sturdy, oak-like prose. Now, it it often performed by writers for whom it is an end in itself, and for whom the novel has become a strange kind of obsession.

Speaking to obsessive writers must get in the way of quaffing the free wine. But when was this time when sturdy oaks thrust manfully into the clear blue sky? Ten years ago? Twenty, thirty, three-hundred? He doesn’t say. Perhaps it’s a fairy tale.

Still he’s right about writers and obsession. What a revelation! "Obsessive writer" is a pleonasm if ever there was one. Yet perhaps for "strange kind of obsession" read "labour of love". Many of us don’t come from privileged backgrounds that enable us to get cushy writing jobs in London. Instead, we have to earn a living in order to write (and read) in our spare time. Writing is not a higher calling but a means of retaining some hold on what’s important when otherwise one is trapped in an office for 40 hours a week, trooping home mentally exhausted to sit blurry-eyed through a short evening before it all starts again.

So what is important to me? I don’t know. I write to find out. Maybe writing obscures what’s important, maybe it illuminates the wrong things, but otherwise life seems insubstantial, evanescent.

In the end, I wonder if McCrum is worried that, with the advent of such information technology, the snobbish and philistine English literary scene controlled by those, for example, who write interminable and "wholly unnecessary" biographies of lightweight and irrelevant writers, is under threat. Is there any other reason for writing vague, unilluminating and specious attacks on unnamed young writers?


  1. Anonymous1:40 pm

    '...Maybe writing obscures what’s important,...

    '...philistine English literary scene...'

    If this is the point then one can only say that one should open ones eyes and begin to look around, begin and dare to write - and best of all begin to read.

  2. What are you talking about? Which 'one' are you addressing? Which 'point' are you referring to? What does it mean to "open one's eyes and begin to look around"? And what kind of writing or reading is daring?

  3. Anonymous3:28 pm

    'Which 'one' are you addressing? '

    One address every living thinking being and the universe through language and, of course, translation. And most importantly those that are lost.

  4. Anonymous3:39 pm

    By the way about the Wodehouse had you ever thought that literature can be fun.

  5. Wanker.

    Oh yes, it can fun.

  6. Anonymous4:31 pm

    Yes it can be fun.

    I've always had something about the word -


    Luv it.

  7. Anonymous10:14 pm

    Are you working on some Roubaud-scale fictional beast? Planning to set London on fire?

    You've already made a very interesting start with the review-essays, so maybe you could follow Borges' lead and let the fictional elements seep into the 'straight stuff'.

  8. I couldn't possibly comment! (But London is safe).

  9. Anonymous8:30 am

    The moment I pressed 'Login and Publish', I realized I'd sent a fragment of a long-standing monologue for all to see.

    The point being: start with something manageable. Start with something you can finish.

    Sound advice, I suppose. But what's the rush? (Oh yes, that wonderful William Gaddis title: "The Rush for Second Place"...!)

  10. Anonymous2:28 pm

    'Planning to set London on fire?'
    Dr Who did that last week did he not?

  11. Anonymous3:38 pm

    I've been working at the Observer this week, opposite Robert McCrum. Every day 2 huge mail bags have arrived, full of books submitted for review by publishers. For the month of April, there are about 200 books here, probably more. And 95% of them are crap - shoddy detective novels, fatuous chick-lit, and spur-of-the-moment biographies. It takes several days to go through all the trip to find the 10 or so books that are actually worth reviewing. You won't hear 'who' these novelists are, because we don't bother reviewing them.

  12. Anonymous3:39 pm

    tripe, not 'trip', sorry.

  13. From the article, it seems he's referring only to novels, specifically literary novels (the reference to "first novels" for instance) rather than just the usual pap. Anyway, that's nothing new. What Orwell wrote about books and bookshops in 1936 might have been written today:

    I'm in no doubt I'd be more critical if confronted with an endless stream of bad novels. But I would name names. It was the lack of detail in the article that appalled me.

  14. Anonymous5:51 pm

    Fair criticism - I guess the problem for Robert is word count - he'd never have space to fit in everyone, while singling out a few crap debuts would just look vindictive. It's one of the big problems with literary journalism - if you don't have the space of somewhere like the TLS, literature is always hard to cover in the detail you'd like. But it really is a fair point he's making - there are too many small houses giving too many talentless people a deal, literary or otherwise. Sometimes, it comes off and the talented get deserved recognition, (see, I don't know, Richard Collins at Seren) but the industry does need to regulate itself or the wheat will be lost in the chaff.



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