It’s Just a Book

When writing a novel, or any other piece of literature, I’ve found one thought that’s useful to bear in mind is that it’s just a book. What I mean is, it doesn’t have to be THE book. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you’ll ever write.

Most inexperienced novelists, myself included, often put themselves under enormous pressure when they start out. They want to write something brilliant. Something that will advertise their writing prowess and define them as a unique and original voice. This can lead to all sorts of problems, not least the critic sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, really, is that it?

Anne Enright hit such a wall when she started her MA in creative writing at the celebrated UEA:

‘I failed and failed again. I had a huge sense of myself as a writer but I had no huge sense of what I wanted to write about…I sat and unwrote my great book which was hugely overambitious… I came home and I wrote three stories in a row and they got published by Faber. They were small and I could do them. The novel I’d planned was set in three different centuries in three different languages.’

Anyone who’s read her novels will know that she went onto execute brilliant, complex and masterful pieces of work. But she had to rein in her overarching ambition first.

When Maggie O’Farrell wrote her first novel, it had four plots. The constructive feedback she received was that it was three plots too many.

I’m not arguing against ambition or complexity or profundity or gravitas or any of those things. I’m just arguing against writers crippling themselves with too much expectation and a doom-laden sense of make-or-break.

I used to think that I should dedicate myself to the highest branch of writing I was capable of and pursue it with single-minded discipline. But, many writers take time to write books that, on the surface, may seem irrelevant or inconsequential. Sometimes these more obscure or ‘lightweight’ works tend to be rather good. Occasionally, they’re even more enjoyable than a writer’s so-called masterpieces.

Take Hilary Mantel. It’s not a common stance I know, but I’m not a huge fan of her fiction. Her memoir, however, Giving Up the Ghost, I thought was just great.

Al Alvarez was a prolific poet, novelist and critic. But have you read his book, Pondlife? It documents his regular swims in the outdoor Hampstead Heath ponds alongside his ruminations on growing old. It’s short, quiet, conversational, almost incidental, but absolutely wonderful.

It doesn’t have to be memoir that a writer chooses to broaden their horizons. John Banville, the literary writer who boasted that his Booker prize-winning novel, The Sea, had won because it was a work of art, also writes detective fiction. I found Snow a captivating read. Many literary writers dabble in crime. I say ‘dabble’ as if it takes no effort. But it does take effort, as well as time and skill. Not all of them can pull it off.

What I’m getting at is that it’s easy, in a bid to be taken seriously, to forget there are more, and perhaps better, reasons to write than to impress. If you take time to have fun, to play, to go off piste, you may produce something light and flimsy, but it may also be something wonderful that soars. Each piece of writing is only part of a body of work and attaching less significance to it may, paradoxically, release you to write your best.

A great tome is a wonderful thing. But don’t underestimate the slighter project that slips into your pocket and brings unexpected delight to both writer and reader.

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