Archive | September, 2012

Unpublished Œuvres

26 Sep

In the age of the e-book, if you write a novel, you can produce a Kindle version of your work and sell it on Amazon.  Technically, then, in our great cyber-democracy, almost anyone can see their work published.  Most of these books will reach at most a handful of readers (there are, of course, those well-known viral exceptions to prove this rule).  In reality (as opposed to virtuality©), the tyranny persists.  If your work is to reach a wider readership, it’s still generally necessary to find a publisher.  Thus, a vast pool of writing subsists out there seemingly destined to remain unread.

It still surprises me just how many of the people I get to know reveal that they’ve written a novel.  More surprising still are those who’ve kept going and completed several unpublished novels.  I have friends who’ve written large bodies of work, upward of five novels, none of which has ever seen the light of day.  So might there be unpublished œuvres out there to match those of Borges, say?  It’s an idea, it strikes me, that would have appealed to the great Argentine writer himself.  I’ve imagined such a scenario myself (see the extract from my short story, The Brief Literary Career of Lewis Burgess on the ‘Writing’ section of this blog).

The same is true of rock music.  Great unsigned bands have come and gone, heard by a few dozen people at most, while overblown and overrated acts are known to millions.  Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always taken a passing interest in the local band scene, and was part of it myself, at one time.  So I’ve tended to frequent those pubs where a band will be playing on a Friday or Saturday night.  And just once in a while, instead of the usual Bon Jovi or Kaiser Chief covers, the music being played will make me sit up and take notice.  I’ll find myself watching a great band playing original music – and for free!  Who now remembers Bosch, for example, a Southend-based band from the ’70s?  Almost nobody because they were unsigned and unrecorded.  But I do.  When I saw them at the Queens Hotel (now demolished) on Westcliffe’s Hamlet Court Road, I tell you, they were brilliant.  The Halibut Song, Under the Knife, Moonlight over Leigh Gas Works… those songs are still playing in the jukebox in my head.  Had Bosch existed in the age of home recording and social media, every riff they ever played would have been recorded and disseminated.  And then there are the Jellymen, but that’s a story all of its own…

As regards fiction, my work is currently a drop in that pool of unpublished writing.  Although I’ve had plenty of my non-fiction published – music journalism, writing on the economy, a biography of a musician – I have yet to persuade a publisher of the merits of my fiction (their loss, of course).  So there was an early novella and a novel that I disowned and a further novel that was seven years in the writing and I subsequently abandoned. But I also have a short story collection and a novella just waiting to meet the right publisher.  To be a writer, you must also be an egotist and believe that what you have written is worthy of the sacrifice of several hours of other people’s lives, a view I happen to share with regard to my own work.  So I’ll finish with a passage that I cut from my blockbuster of a novel with a World War II setting:

The writer has to believe in the integrity of his artistic vision, ignoring the doubts that eat away at him, if he is to have any chance of seeing his work through to completion.  At the same time, he must guard against the merest whiff of complacency that might serve to undermine his writing.  He must maintain absolute concentration throughout the project.  Those same rules, it seemed to Philip Easton, applied to the airman.  You had to keep on believing, in spite of the odds, flying in the face of the evidence, that it wouldn’t happen to you, that despite what your heart and guts might tell you, you’d finish up among the fortunate few.  You weren’t going to be shot down.  Your aeroplane wasn’t going to malfunction fatally.  You weren’t going to be in that bomber hurtling earthward, like those you’d seen going down around you over the target.  This much you had to believe or you could never set foot again on the rungs of that short ladder that led up to the fuselage of your aeroplane.  And yet, for all that, at the same time, you had to believe in the possibility.  A belief in one’s own invulnerability would prove the very worst form of hubris. 

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“A belief in one’s own invulnerability would prove the very worst form of hubris”

Image © PSR

Your Ideal Reader: the Ultimate Test

10 Sep

You’ve spent years writing a book.  And now, at last, it’s finished.  But how do you know if it’s any good?  You’re far too close to the work yourself to tell whether it is or not.  If like most writers, you ride that manic seesaw, believing at one moment that you’ve delivered a masterpiece, at the next that you’ve spent years polishing a turd, you’re singularly misplaced to judge.  You could part with your precious cash and send it to a professional reader for their comments but there’s no guarantee that they’ll share your tastes or that they’ll ‘get it’.

The ultimate test of what you’ve written, it seems to me, is to find your ideal reader.  Since most writers presumably set out to write the book that they themselves would like to read, they ought to be their own ideal readers.  This isn’t so, of course.  There are the small matters of objectivity and distance to consider.  So instead, the writer needs to find someone else whose literary tastes very nearly match his or her own.

I found mine by pure chance.  He was standing at the bus stop.  In fact, he was already known to me, just not as my ideal reader.  He lives above a shop across the way from me and we’d participated in sport together.  I knew little more about him.  I had no idea that since taking redundancy he’d dedicated most of his time to reading books and that he liked many of the same authors as me.  A chance comment led to the discovery.  And at that moment, I realised that the man standing next to me in the bus queue would be the ideal reader of my soon to be finished vast work with a World War Two setting.

It’s a frightening prospect handing over that manuscript to your ideal reader, especially after quaffing a quantity of ale in a dockside Polish-themed pub.  You can no longer delude yourself.  If your perfect reader doesn’t like what you’ve written, then what next?  It is, as I say, the ultimate test.  Others might see getting into print as the be-all-and-end-all.  I disagree.  That’s simply a matter of taste.  If my work is presented to someone freshly out of university with a liking for nineteenth century English classics then we may be fairly certain of the outcome.  If, on the other hand, I know that I’m submitting my work to a reader who admires, say, Bolaño and Murakami, Perec and Calvino, and still he or she doesn’t like it, then what could be more damning?

I recommend it, though, particularly if like me, you’ve just had a publisher’s rejection advising you to send your manuscript to a publisher that specialises in the war story genre.  It’s a vast work with a World War Two setting, not a WW2 story.   Never mind…  The doorbell rang on the Sunday afternoon as I was dozing on the bed.  My ideal reader was at the door.  I was heartened to hear that he’d been genuinely moved and entertained by what I’d written.  In the end, though, I need to connect with that wider audience of ideal readers and that involves using an intermediary, in other words finding a sympathetic publisher.  Ah well, onward and upward…

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A dockside Polish-themed pub

Image © PSR