Monday, October 03, 2005

I feel despair filter through me

Susan Hill tempts us with a rhetorical question: Try to think of a great novel that does not have a story, memorable characters, vividly evoked settings.

Her own 'random list' of great novels prompts a question to myself: do I want to read great novels?

The first question is raised in a report on the 3,741 manuscripts Hill received after setting up Long Barn Books (a subsidiary to Pear Tree Productions?). She hasn’t been impressed by the quality: “Most of the hopefuls ought to be doing anything but try to write. Most seemed to have written the same (bad) novel.”

It didn’t take her long to see a pattern:

Most of the worst novels were written in the first person narrative present tense. "I open one eye. My eyeball hurts. I look around a dim room strewn with unwashed plates, dirty cups, stained underwear. I feel despair filter through me. I do not know where I am."

Reads like the opening of Swann’s Way as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq!

My first reaction was one of embarrassment for the people who write this kind of stuff, and disappointment that they haven’t thought through what it means to write fiction. And then I thought: actually, I feel this embarrassment and disappointment reading the opening lines of most published novels from which I read extracts or browse in the library.

Yet Hill says in order to be published, it is essential that a writer has “some sense of what makes a novel appeal to readers”. She thinks the fault of her hopeless hopefuls is to write fiction as "self-therapy". She equates it with those of us for whom commercial success is a by-product rather than an aim. “If you despise commerce in general or believe literature should be outside and above it” she says “the only thing to do is put up your books to be read free on the internet.”

Like our journalism perhaps? Anyway, to paraphrase Jung on the existence of God, I do not believe that literature should be outside or above commerce, I know it is.

There’s something unspoken here that seems to be troubling Hill. It seems to be a fear that literature is selfish, solipsistic even, but that this mustn’t be admitted. The pretence is the achievement. The pretence is the craft. Yet perhaps all those naïve writers, by trying to draw fiction into the voiceless, private world of the self, are unwittingly expressing the failure of fiction; a failure a craftswoman like Hill sees as a success. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she also writes childrens' books.

If my suspicion is right, her fear is unnecessary. Writing is already public. Your diary is as public as The Da Vinci Code; even if is read by no-one, not even you, its keeper. Hence my embarrassment and disappointment with those who fail to notice the bottomless crevasse between oneself and writing. The crevasse is everything (and nothing).

Hill alludes to the impossibility of the problem when she says that “a love of writing books should spring from a love of reading”. Indeed, but one loves reading for the reason one hates it. It's out there. It resists.


  1. Anonymous7:52 am

    "The Unnamable" by Samuel Beckett arguably has no characters, story, or setting. It's also in the first person present tense.

  2. Is that right? Isn't it set within a glass sphere? Is it one of Susan Hill's faves? Don't bet the farm on it.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.