The link below is to an article that takes a look at what a ‘hard-boiled’ novel actually is.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at what a ‘hard-boiled’ novel actually is.
For more visit:
Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.
Since 2000, Self has used the occasion of the release of his own books to repeatedly argue that the novel is destined to “become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony”. During his promotional duties for Umbrella, Self asked whether we are evolving beyond the need to tell stories, while in 2014 he announced the declining cultural centrality of the novel due to the digitisation of print culture in an article to promote Shark.
Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.
Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.
Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.
Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.
But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.
The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.
As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.
Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.
Emerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.
When I was asked a few years ago if I would like to edit one of Jane Austen’s novels, I quickly answered that I would be happy to, and especially if I could edit her greatest novel.
“I’m sorry, Rob,” was the reply. “Someone is already editing Pride and Prejudice.”
“That’s ok,” I said, much relieved. “Pride and Prejudice is not Austen’s greatest novel. Jane Austen’s greatest novel is Persuasion.”
It is – among many other things – the most moving love story she ever told. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of the absurdly vain baronet Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Frederick Wentworth is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Eight years before the novel begins, Wentworth proposes to Anne and she accepts him after a brief and intense courtship, only to be persuaded by her father and her older friend Lady Russell to break off the engagement. Wentworth, angry and badly hurt, goes back to sea, where he conducts a successful series of raiding expeditions on enemy ships, and amasses a fortune in prize money.
When Napoleon abdicates for the first time in April 1814, Wentworth returns to England and soon pays a visit to his sister, who now lives near Anne. Throughout his absence, meanwhile, Anne has found no one who compares to him, and has pined away to the point where now, at 27 years old, her bloom is gone and she has begun the descent into spinsterhood.
Many critics have argued that, as a result of suffering and regret, Anne is already “mature” when the novel opens, while the rich and carefree Wentworth has a good deal of growing up to do before he recognizes – or, rather, re-recognizes – her worth.
On the contrary, for all that divides them when he returns, Anne has as much to learn about love as Wentworth does, and her journey toward their reconciliation contains as much confusion as his. Indeed, part of the enormous appeal of Persuasion is Austen’s ability to convey the ways in which Wentworth and Anne are moving steadily toward one another even as their various missteps, flirtations and assumptions seem to be driving them still further apart.
Their reunion is the finest scene in all of Austen, and in it they do not even speak face to face, for Austen understood that mediated and misdirected messages frequently carry a far greater charge than explicit declarations.
Anne and Wentworth are both in a room at the White Hart Inn in Bath. He is sitting at a desk writing a letter. She is nearby speaking to a mutual friend, Captain Harville, about men, women and constancy.
Harville believes that men feel more deeply than women. Anne takes the opposite view, and while she does not mention Wentworth or her own circumstances, everything she says is clearly with him in mind.
She has spoken to no one about her grief over Wentworth, and it is not long before eight years of pent-up anguish flood out of her. “We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” she tells Harville. “It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.”
Wentworth, still writing his letter, overhears Anne’s comments and knows immediately that she is speaking about their relationship, and about all that has been lost.
Seizing another sheet of paper, he begins a second letter in which he records his feelings toward her as she utters hers toward him, and which he leaves behind on the desk for her to read.
Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to Austen’s novels because he found them “imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.”
But Austen knew that love is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Persuasion she makes Anne’s whole world hang on a single letter. It is a moment that demonstrates both the superb compression and the enduring appeal of her art.
If Wentworth loves Anne, she has a future that stretches as far as the seas. If he does not, she has only a past that will increasingly consume her. She reads the letter. He does love her. Her joy is inexpressible. So is ours.
What’s more, Austen has contrived to tell both Anne and the reader at the same time, and her passionate affirmation of personal preference and individual desire far transcends the “wretched conventions of English society.”
“You pierce my soul,” Wentworth’s letter reads. “I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.” Anne is overwhelmed.
During the novel she has been transformed, from faded to blooming, from nobody to somebody, from “only Anne” within her family to Wentworth’s “only Anne.”
Persuasion is Austen’s last published work. She began it when she was nearly 40 years old, and when she finished it she was within a year of her death. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of her shortest – and it is certainly her saddest – novel.
But it is also her subtlest and most impassioned. “After a long immersion in [Austen’s] work,” British novelist Martin Amis writes, “I find that her thought rhythms entirely invade my own.”
For me, nowhere are Austen’s “thought rhythms” more haunting than in Anne’s conversation with Harville, and Wentworth’s response to her in his letter. More broadly, in its blend of the public and the personal, Persuasion explores both the torment of silence and the value of hope.
I am someone who reads, teaches, and writes about contemporary American fiction for a living. Knowing this, you might expect that fresh, experimental novels would constantly be arriving on my desk, that I would be inundated with literary innovation.
But it is in fact rare to come across a book that does something genuinely new and startling with the form of the novel, a form with a long and distinguished history. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which last night won the 2017 Booker Prize, is that rare kind of book. I had read all of Saunders’s short fiction collections, as well as a great many interviews and essays, before opening his first novel. Yet despite what should have been ideal preparation, I was unprepared for what I found there.
As any student of American history knows, the ostensible subject of Lincoln in the Bardo is the most revered of all US presidents. Abraham Lincoln was an autodidact who rose to fame from an inauspicious backwoods upbringing. He became president at what remains the most fraught moment in American history. He led the north to victory in the Civil War, and abolished slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He thought like a legal scholar but projected the empathy of a statesman. His speeches are among the greatest ever made by a politician. And he was assassinated as the war drew to a close, ensuring his legacy could not be tarnished by any future descent from the height of his powers.
Lincoln is also one of the most written about men in history, a subject of endless fascination. He has been explored by countless scholars, imagined by myriad writers, embodied by numerous actors on stage and screen. How then to write about Lincoln in a new way, to imagine not only the man himself but all he has come to represent in and for American culture?
Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question in two surprising ways. First, Saunders does not focus his primary attention on Lincoln, but on the spirits who inhabit the cemetery in which his 11-year-old son Willie has been buried. Reading the novel’s opening line – “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen” – we initially assume that we are hearing the voice of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps coming to us from the mysterious space of the bardo, the realm in Buddhist mythology that lies between death and rebirth.
It soon becomes clear, however, that the facts do not fit with this reading, and nor does the tone. On the third page, we discover that the speaker is one “hans vollman”, in conversation with someone called “roger bevins iii”. These are not famous men, nor are they taken up with famous acts. They are discussing the fatal accident experienced by vollmann when he was hit by a beam while in the first flush of sexual arousal with his virgin bride. Echoing the setting and tone of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille, Lincoln in the Bardo begins like a bawdy black comedy.
In building a fictional world from this unexpected opening, the second key decision Saunders makes is to refuse to do what writers of historical fiction have always done, which is to conceal the sources of their research and imagine their subject fresh onto the page. Instead, Saunders quotes a wide range of scholarly passages verbatim, attributing the quotations to their author and text.
These passages are drawn from what historians call primary sources (letters and memoirs from Lincoln’s contemporaries) and secondary sources (scholarly accounts of Lincoln in the 150+ years since his death). Most of these sources are real, some are invented, and it’s not always clear which is which. The result is a novel that powerfully transmits the cumulative and collective effort to write history, to do justice to the past and what it means.
The mix of these two registers – the comic and the scholarly – shouldn’t work, but it does. Once the reader has settled into the rhythm of alternating chapters dealing with the chaotic world of the spirits and the more sober (but sometimes equally peculiar) scholarship on Lincoln, Saunders’s project gains clarity, purpose and power. Populated with a multitude of voices, the novel addresses the great faultlines of American democracy – race, gender, wealth, sexuality – while keeping its eye firmly on the common ground its characters share in their inevitable confrontation with life and death.
In a creative writing masterclass with Saunders that I attended earlier this year at the University of Liverpool, the author outlined his vision of literary stories as “active systems of contradiction”. In mixing together what we usually think of as opposites – tragedy and comedy, high rhetoric and bawdy farce, private grief and political action, the individual and the collective – stories can challenge our sense that some things must be kept apart. We come to see that these apparent opposites are in fact different faces of a fundamental unity. This is the unity that underpins our connection to one another in a shared world.
In writing Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders couldn’t have known how directly his themes would speak to an America and a world in which contradictions are becoming increasingly stark and oppositions are being set in stone. The Booker Prize jury has done us a favour by drawing attention to a book that tries to forge a unity among opposites in the most surprising ways.
Despite its origins in grief and mourning, Saunders’s message is a refreshingly hopeful one. We can only hope the message is heard by those whose ears it needs to reach.
Banned Books Week, held this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, is an annual event designed to draw national attention to the harms of censorship. Created in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to a growing number of “challenged” books in schools and libraries, the week is really about celebrating the freedom to read.
Much of the practice of book banning takes the form of challenging a book deemed subversive and objectionable, with profanity or sexual content often the book challengers’ source of ire.
These days, such campaigns can elicit an eye roll: everyone knows that teens are regularly exposed to profanity and sex online and on TV. (Rather than try to ban books, a better approach is to instead teach media literacy so young people are better able to contextualize what they’re exposed to.)
The problem is that when you go after books for swears or sex, you might also be threatening books that are truly subversive: the ones that confront our unconscious biases, whether it’s weight or race, and question the way we tend to think about ourselves and others. One frequently challenged book – Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 young adult novel “Eleanor & Park” – does just that.
“Eleanor & Park” is a romance novel about two misfits who become friends, fall in love and endure the cruelties of the world: abusive parents, poverty and bullying.
The same year it was published, a parent group in the Anoka-Hennipin school district in Minnesota tried (and failed) to get the book removed from the curriculum and school libraries. But they did manage to get the author’s visit to Anoka High School canceled.
Citing 227 instances of profanity, the parents alleged that “Eleanor & Park” was “littered with extreme profanity and age inappropriate subject matter that should never be put into the hands and minds of minor children, much less promoted by the educational institutions and staff we entrust to teach and protect our children.”
Banning books in the United States is nothing new, and there’s a long history of trying to prevent people (mostly kids and teens) from reading things some think they shouldn’t read.
It seems that the only thing worse than sex or the “f word” in young adult literature is being a lesbian. Depicting a gay couple got copies of Nancy Garden’s 1982 lesbian romance novel “Annie on My Mind” burned on the steps of the Kansas City School District headquarters in 1993.
Judy Blume’s books are famous for pushing the “decency” envelope. Her 1972 novel “Forever…” is also frequently banned for sexual content and for profanity. (Pretty much yearly since its publication, “Forever…” has been challenged by Focus on the Family or The Christian Coalition.)
But there’s another aspect to “Forever…” that’s rarely discussed: It has a fat character who has lots of sex. Sybil is often seen as a foil to the main character Katherine, a rail-thin control freak who loses her virginity deliberately and with purpose.
Sybil is the other side of the body image spectrum: She’s fat and “has been laid” by six guys. At least she gets to have sex, which is pretty uncommon for a fat girl in 1972 young adult fiction. (And there’s a penis named Ralph in the book, yet another reason to read this classic.)
But “Forever…” is an extreme outlier. The way the media depicts fat characters – and fat people – has been a problem for generations. In 2011 NPR aired a piece on fat stereotypes in pop culture. The report dissected the typical fat character in TV shows and films: someone “self-loathing” and “desperate to be loved.”
Of course, the lives of fat people aren’t much different from those of thin people. But you wouldn’t know that from the way fat bodies are portrayed on TV and in film. Research on “weight bias in the media” suggests that most representations of fat people in media are stigmatizing. More research suggests that shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “More to Love” reinforce anti-fat bias rather than fat acceptance.
This is why “Eleanor & Park” is so refreshingly different.
Like many protagonists in young adult novels, Eleanor is a teenager who’s desperate to be an adult so she can escape her awful circumstances. But while the parents trying to ban the book pounced on the profanity, they ignored one of the novel’s biggest triumphs: Eleanor is fat. Yes, Eleanor is a fat female protagonist in a young adult romance novel and she’s in love – she even has a cute boyfriend named Park.
As author John Green wrote in a review of the novel, “…the obstacle in ‘Eleanor & Park’ is simply the world. The world cannot stomach a relationship between a good-looking Korean kid and Big Red.” (Big Red is Eleanor’s nickname.)
Last year, Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal penned a beautiful personal essay about discovering Eleanor in an airport bookstore. Part of what struck Toal as significant about Eleanor is that she is fat yet is not required to become thin or change in order to be loved. Despite the recent increase in fat characters appearing on television and in movies, many of them are required to change in order to be accepted. Not surprisingly, another study published in 2013 connects the prevalence of the “thin ideal” in popular literature to low self-esteem in female readers.
Letting Eleanor be fat and be loved is much needed in today’s climate of “the obesity epidemic” and misplaced concerns with fatness. Park loves Eleanor; she loves him back. A simple story, but with a difference. Eleanor’s fat is not really a crucial aspect of her being. She doesn’t need to be fixed.
That’s what makes this lovely and painful novel subversive – and what makes efforts to ban it all the more misguided.
At the Hay Festival on June 2, Melvin Burgess received the Andersen Press Young Adult Book Prize Special Achievement Award for his novel Junk, first published 20 years ago. Since then, the young adult novel has come of age.
Burgess and his publisher, Andersen Press, took a risk when Junk was first released in 1996, when books for teenagers were hardly as gritty as the typical dystopian fare of today. A book about drug addiction and prostitution aimed at “young adults” was then a very daring thing, and many thought that this was a book that was simply too depressing for the market and would languish on the library shelves. It was, after all, one in which 14- and 15-year-olds take high risks, living away from home in a squat and fuelling their heroin addiction through theft.
Actually, it didn’t languish on the library shelves at all. It became a bestseller and was translated into 28 languages. Unsurprisingly, it received some negative commentary, but as Burgess himself has pointed out (in the latest edition of Junk), most of that came from people who had not read the book. There was also plenty of positive commentary: “An honest, authentic look at the drug culture,” said Time Out. “May just be the best YA book ever,” thought Robert Muchamore. “It is the real thing – a teenage novel for teenage readers,” argued The Scotsman. Burgess was awarded the Carnegie medal for Junk in 1997.
As its title hints, it’s a grim story, and now slightly dated. The young people involved have to make phone calls from phone boxes and have little access to computers. Yet the main characters, Gemma and Tar, are believable and rounded. The addiction is real. Homelessness is still an issue. It was Burgess’s aim to tell an authentic story but by his own admission, “authentic is informative”.
Arguably, the young adult and the young adult novel have existed for some time. Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and even Goethe featured them and wrote them, of a kind. The Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, was aimed at all ages (think David Copperfield).
More recently, in the 1970s, Judy Blume and Christine Nöstlinger wrote for the older teen. These books featured some of the challenges facing young people: growing sexual awareness, peer pressure and the need to take responsibility for the world. But the young people in these novels do not take such high risks as Burgess’s characters nor is the description of their activity as explicit. Not quite (young) adult.
The term “young adult” did not come into common parlance until sometime after the appearance of Junk (though some educationalists have used the word since 1957 when the Young Adult Library Division, now known as the Young Adult Services Association (YALSA), was formed).
The bookshop chain Ottakar’s relabelled their teen fiction “young adult” in 1999. Waterstone’s changed the description back to “teen fiction” in 2006. At this point, the book-producing industry could not quite define what was meant by “young adult”. But Junk is often considered to have launched the Young Adult novel. Burgess may not have seen this as permission to write for this newly defined reader. He just wanted to write that particular story. Now he admits, however, that “the time was ripe for YA to grow up, and I was the right person in the right place at the right time”.
Other writers began to write for this newly defined reader. Kate Cann and Louise Rennison started writing what might be termed “Chicklet-Lit” – chick lit for a slightly younger readership. Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Waite gradually started writing for older teenagers. Several vampire and other paranormal romance books began to appear.
Other novels by Burgess push boundaries, too: Lady, My Life as a Bitch (2001) tells the story of a girl who becomes a dog and enjoys being promiscuous. Doing It (2003) is a frank examination of young male sexuality at the same time as showing the vulnerability of his three main characters. Nicholas Dane (2009) raises the issue of abuse but Burgess keeps the protagonist human. The Hit (2013) includes drugs again and violence on the streets of Manchester (yet is really about something else).
The young adult novel, after all, is a story told by one invented young adult (Burgess and many other writers of young adult literature are certainly not young adults) to another. In Junk, Burgess uses a series of close first person narratives, most of them from the point of view of two main characters. He offers us a character closeness, high stakes and risk-taking in our young people that was innovative at the time. After Junk, these were identified as traits of the young adult novel. He also offers us the young adult’s voice:
Maybe if I get off, I’ll get back with Gemma again. I know, I know. She didn’t chuck me because I was using … I was as clean as a whistle at the time, more or less. But you have to have hope.
Junk is 20 years old – and it still speaks to us. As Malorie Blackman, former Children’s Laureate, says in her introduction: “It may not be real but as with every great fictional story – every word is true.”
So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …
Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).
But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.
It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.
He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.
Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.
Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”
Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.
To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.
And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5” with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.
Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”
Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).
This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.
But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.
“So!“ you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.
Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ‘seven stages of writing a novel.’
In March 2015, when the days remained long and hot, so dry that the paddocks around my house were tinder, my debut novel Anchor Point was published.
The events of the novel occur under pressure from exponential environmental fragility and climate change.
As 2015 has worn on, cooling, growing bitter, as the rain failed to arrive, I’ve been invited to speak and write on the idea that “writing for good” – writing to enact positive social change – is a valid and important thing for fiction writers to do. A session at the upcoming National Young Writers’ Festival speaks to this topic.
I am deeply touched by the inherent optimism in this notion: that writers and artists who direct their work toward the prevailing issues of the time can somehow alter the real world, for the better.
Literature is constructive as well as reflective, and there is certain power in this.
Historian and literary critic David Masson, in British Novelists and Their Styles (1859), observed the development of novels written out of “contemporary earnest”:
We have to report, as characteristic of British novel-writing recently and at present, a great development of the Novel of Purpose.
This trend, of course, was not limited to Britain, but it certainly grew in strength across the nineteenth century.
Literary scholar Amanda Claybaugh, in her book The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World (2007), finds that such nineteenth-century novels sometimes related to social reform movements and sometimes did not. Yet all took their “conception of purposefulness” from the desire to change society.
Fiction can underwrite understandings of what is deemed desirable and appropriate by a given culture; what is unacceptable, what is feared and abhorred. Novels rising from moments of conflict and hardship sharpen focus on the inequalities and struggles of those times.
In doing so, such narratives raise awareness of key social issues and potentially move the culture toward empathy, understanding, change – or else underscore unfortunate cultural resistance, the failure of those things to eventuate.
Many examples of this phenomenon already exist in literature across the world.
The Colour Purple (1982), Alice Walker’s gruelling novel of gender inequality and racism in 1930s Georgia, was published in the early 1980s. It simultaneously showcases conditions for black women before the civil rights movement and draws attention, by comparison, to the shortcomings of contemporary race and gender relations in the movement’s wake.
More recently, Dave Eggars’ novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) lays bare the heartbreaking difficulties and deep resilience of the refugee experience. It portrays the life of one Sudanese “Lost Boy” fleeing his nation’s civil war for the United States.
In an entirely different kind of book, John Marsden addresses the refugee experience. His poignant and distressing illustrated work for children, Home and Away (2008), sits within the Australian context.
These texts exert complex cultural pressure around contemporary issues, inviting the reader to inhabit the terrible, but authentic, experiences they portray.
Such books write into the heart of historical and current difficulties with intrinsic hopefulness, spotlighting dark times so that they can be seen clearly for what they are.
In contrast, dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), P.D. James’ The Children of Men (1992) and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), to name a few of my favourites, wrestle with the future.
Offering visions of frightening social, political and environmental breakdown, such novels convey the fear that our legacy will be danger and unrest, the future a terrifying context where humanities’ core qualities – capacity for kindness, compassion, cooperation – will be tested, even altogether razed.
So often these speculative narratives arise from periods of perceived genuine threat to our real-world way of life: slavery; industrialization; the spectre of nuclear obliteration; the AIDs epidemic; the digital revolution. By portraying perilous imagined futures, dystopian narratives help illuminate the cultural anxieties of the present day.
This is also true of the climate change novels currently surfacing in Australia and globally. According to UCLA Journalism and Media Fellow Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, in her article Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre (2013), the threat of climate change has become:
too pressing [for authors] to ignore, and less abstract, thanks to a nonstop succession of mega-storms and record-shattering temperatures.
Some novels, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) and James Bradley’s Clade (2015) imagine grim social, political and humanitarian crises that could arise in response to profound degradation of the natural world.
Others, like my own, are set in the early stages of environmental and systemic breakdown, when there remains a narrow possibility for turning things around.
Either way, just as the threat of nuclear war felt imminent in the 1950s, making way for the anxious cultural sense that bombs could drop at any moment, climate change is also imminent – and this is reflected in the stories we are telling.
But unlike the threat of life in a radioactive world, the impacts of climate change are now actual, and inevitable. While science can tell us what climate change is likely to look like in various regions from an ecological perspective, we just don’t know for sure what our lives will be like as significant change comes to pass.
A work of fiction is a guess, a possible response to a question we have no other way of answering.
As another hot summer looms, as I contemplate my little children who stand to inherit the issues we are now failing to adequately address, as I turn in disgust from the governmental inertia around climate change in Australia, it feels clearer now than ever before that fiction writing alone cannot alter the collision course with disaster we seem determined to create.
Whatever optimism there may be inherent in the ability of writing to enact meaningful change in the world, it seems both a heavy duty to bestow to individual practitioners, and too little too late.
When I think of writing for good in the context of writing about climate change, I see that there is power in fiction’s capacity to illuminate unknown futures for those living now, to show what life might be like in climatically altered circumstances, how they could be survived. I see that there is good, also, in recording our cultural despair in fiction as a message to those in the future.
We once imagined the perils of your experience, and we are sorry.
The National Young Writers’ Festival takes place in Newcastle, October 1-4. Details here.
Earlier this year Michael Mohammed Ahmad was voted one of Australia’s Best Young Writers by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). The 2015 list, which included Maxine Beneba Clarke, Omar Musa, Alice Pung, and Ellen Van Neervan, was described by the SMH’s Linda Morris as a group of “outsiders writing about what it is to be an outsider”.
It is, however, Ahmad’s insider account of what it means to be Arab-Australian in the 21st century that singles out and distinguishes his work. Melbourne University professor Ghassan Hage described Ahmad’s literary debut, The Tribe (2014), as “an astonishing novel”. Angelo Loukakis, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, lauded the book’s insistence upon a community that is immanently “worthy of art”.
In an interview on The Conversation in January, Ahmad said:
For the last two decades the representation of Arab-Australian Muslims has been coloured by media reports of terrorist conspiracy, sexual assault, drug-dealing and drive-by shootings. I wrote The Tribe in an attempt to step beyond these limited and simplistic images. I wanted to offer a complex and humanising portrayal of my community and culture which, as we have all learnt in recent months, is playing an increasingly important role in contemporary Australian society.
I wrote The Tribe for Australians.
Published by Giramondo Press in 2014, the novel presents the world through the eyes of a child called Bani. Through Bani, we are introduced the House of Adam, three generations of a Muslim family that fled the civil war in Lebanon and emigrated to Australia in the 1980s.
The book certainly offers a stunning counter-punch to what Ahmad has outlined regarding the mainstream media representations of Arab-Australian experience and the current obsession with stories of radicalisation and the threat of homegrown terrorism.
But how does it achieve this? And what does it tell us about the role of fiction as a tool for thinking about the most challenging social and political questions of our time?
At a base level, the sheer time and energy required to read a novel renders it uniquely capable of the kind of sustained and complex forms of attention such issues deserve. This is especially pertinent, given the increasing pressure placed upon our attention by the over-stimulating, hyper-technologised culture of the 21st century.
Ahmad deploys the child narrator to afford readers a privileged form of access to the community he wishes to write about. Throughout the book Bani hides under beds, peeps through keyholes and eavesdrops on adult conversation. All of which make him, and the reader, party to a secret and strange universe.
The child’s gaze renders Tayta, the grandmotherly matriarch of the family, a semi-sacred presence, a tangible connection to the ancient culture left behind in Lebanon. Through the child’s eyes we see the father Jibreel as a towering character, a terrifying authority figure and the rock upon which the family is built.
Of course, such child-focalised narratives have a rich and distinguished literary history. We might think about Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837) holding a mirror to Victorian age, or Jim Hawkins, the perilous protagonist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or Scout, who provides the moral compass in Harper Lee’s landmark novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
In her review of The Tribe, Maxine Beneba Clarke criticised Ahmad’s reliance on this device, highlighting the naivety of Bani and his inability to carry a family saga like The Tribe. In my view, Clarke missed the point.
Ahmad’s narrative deliberately shifts between the child’s perspective and that of the older Bani who, from the perspective of his twenties, looks back to the world of his childhood. Such versatility allows The Tribe to expose the casual sexism, internalised racism and occasional misogyny of the community in which Bani grows up.
It also allows the book to take a more adult perspective, philosophically weighing up the sense of rootedness and deep connection that characterises so much of this world. Arab-Australian identity, we learn, is not some singular, homogeneous label. Rather it exists as a spectrum and contains more complexity and diversity than the mainstream media allow.
In this sense, we might well think of Bani and Ahmad as radical young Muslims – they defy expectations, challenge stereotypes, and disrupt clichés. The Tribe acts as both a love letter to the Australian Lebanese community and an attempt to submit it to form of critical scrutiny, one that is as honest and forthright as it is meaningful and sympathetic.
In fashioning the novel around three episodes – a birth, a marriage and a death – Ahmad implicitly questions the shallow materialism and rampant individualism of contemporary Western culture. As The Tribes’ huge cast of characters wanders in and out of its pages, we come to realise the intimacy and richness of such extended communities and think afresh about what it means to live a rich and fulsome life.
Through his unassuming narrator, Bani, Ahmad asks us to reconsider who, in fact, are the insiders and who are the outsiders within modern Australia, this most multicultural of modern nations.