Not everyone has a novel in them

Literature is the only art in which, it seems, every neophyte is convinced they can succeed

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mrs Secret Author, who knows her onions, recently drew her husband’s attention to a Facebook post that, or so she claimed, simultaneously epitomised all that was best and all that was worst about the modern literary marketplace.

In it a woman — thankfully unknown to us — had decided to file her new year’s resolutions. One of them was to write “a Romance novel”. Clearly this was going to take a bit of time, but the aspiring novelist was confident that if she started now it would be possible to plan for a pre-Christmas launch.

All this, it turned out, had gone down a storm with the poster’s friends. To a man — well, actually to a woman — they rushed to assure her what a terrific idea it was. Several of them confided that they, too, had always wanted to write “Romance novels” and it was great that at least one of their number was about to get on with it.

Does anyone ever say they hope to become a painter and that their first exhibition is already booked?

And who was lined up to publish the darling work? Naturally, in this age of limitless technological horizons and level playing fields, the author was going to publish it herself.

There are a number of stock responses to this proud declaration of authorial intent. The snob response is to maintain that such a free-for-all simply devalues the craft of writing and that whatever results will be entirely devoid of merit.

The egalitarian response is to suggest that mass access to what a theorist would call the modes of literary production is a wonderful, empowering thing and that objections to it are merely elitist. Why shouldn’t the Facebook poster set up as the Marie Corelli of cyberspace to the delight of her friends, and who are we to stop her?

Meanwhile, the book-world traditionalist — not quite the same as the book-world snob, although there are parallels — will probably want to invoke the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book of the pre-tech age and its assurance (this came in the section about “Vanity Publishing”) that usually, if a book is any good, at some point in its existence somebody somewhere will be prepared to pay money to publish it.

And all this ignores the amusement of professionals working in other art forms. After all, does anyone ever publicly state that they hope to become a painter and that their first exhibition is booked for six months’ time?

But literature, you see, is different. Unlike painting, or musical composition, or ballet, it is about the only branch of the arts in which the neophyte can make some sort of a showing without seriously embarrassing themselves. Most educated people can string a couple of readable paragraphs together; equally, most of us could, if pressed, come up with a plotline capable of sustaining the average thriller.

One of the Secret Author’s earliest jobs involved reading manuscripts for a literary agent. Almost all the aspiring talents involved could produce a convincing narrative. Where they fell short was in being able to produce plausible dialogue.

They were tough times even then, and of the 100 or so manuscripts that arrived for comment, perhaps half-a-dozen eventually made it onto a publisher’s desk and, of those, exactly one was published. No doubt, if the technology had existed, a fair proportion of them would have seen the light. But would anyone south of the author and a few admiring friends have benefitted?

Did the author do this? No, he went for instant gratification

And here we come to the real drawback of self-publishing, which is that by its very nature it discourages most of the writers involved from fulfilling any kind of potential they may have.

Not long ago the Secret Author was approached by a lawyer of his acquaintance. Our man was writing a crime novel and wanted to know what a professional thought of it. The manuscript turned out to be a cut above the average — well-written, with a serviceable plot, a well-realised sense of place and some salty dialogue.

The verdict was: not bad, but could do even better; and the advice was: take some time over this, think hard about what you could do to improve it, and send it to an agent to see what they think.

Did the author do this? No, he went for instant gratification, published it on Amazon and saw it sink without trace, whereas had he taken pains over it, rewritten it and sought professional advice, it might just — although one never knows — have made it onto a commercial publisher’s list.

Which takes us back to the Facebook-poster and her “Romance novel”. For what really irks is not the idea that you can take up a new career with the same facility that you can insure your labrador, but the assumption that writing is easy.

As Brian Howard, the part-model for Brideshead Revisited’s Anthony Blanche is supposed to have said when he saw his first Surrealist painting: “My dear, all they are trying to do is paint without any effort, and we all know where that leads.” We do. It leads to Facebook posts and Amazon listings.

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