It occurred to me, shortly after accusing Martin Amis ofmisogyny, that all the writers I’ve included in my rereading list are male. They’re not all white, but, whilst I don’t know for sure, I suspect they’re all middle-class. They all write in English as their first language. Is this a problem? It’s not wholly representative of my average reading habits and diversity in one’s choice of literature, much as it is in music, is important. A record collection solely encompassing white boys with guitars makes for very dull listening, and so it is with reading. If I were only to read what people like me had to say, then I’d never learn anything new.
All very noble, but then again, whilst I do own a wide array of music by people from all walks of life sung in a multitude of languages, there are, if I’m honest, a lot of white boys wearing jeans in four of five piece bands with guitars and drums. As I typed this the first time round I listened to the Cure’s Pornography. On the redraft it was It by Pulp.
So, perhaps subconsciously, I have picked out a group of writers most representative of my library. Oh, dear The intention was to try and explain how my reading habits, and therefore my writing habits, have changed over the years.
These days I don’t approach novels, or authors rather, in the same way an obsessed teenager might do with music, or bands. It is vaguely acceptable if one enjoys, say, a White Stripes album to investigate the rest of Jack White’s music with his other bands. I once thought that novels could work the same – see Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal and Don DeLillio. I was wrong. Novels, more than music, reflect the person who you are at the time, not who you once or were or even who you might be.
The investiture one makes with a novel is so much greater both in time and emotion, for both the consumer and the artist. An album can be trashed out in an afternoon, if you’re the Beatles in 1963, or at least a matter of months. The bands that spend years intensely working on a record, Guns N Roses or the Stone Roses for example, are the exception. And it’s usually rubbish when it finally turns up. For the novelist it takes years of full time work to craft a fiction and then to recraft it. One thousand words are, arguably, harder to come by than three minutes parts of which are repeated. You’re not trying to capture a zeitgeist, but to be true to the voice that you’re dragging out from the depths - unless you’re, say Howard Jacobson, in which case you’re just using Howard Jacobson’s voice in every book.
Similarly, we consume music differently. An album takes forty-five minutes to listen to and then, presuming that it’s any good, will be heard dozens of times in the same the year and beyond. A novel takes as long as it takes to read. I, probably, average just over one a week, but I’m odd. For most people it’s more like a fortnight or three weeks and probably it will never be picked up again. With that in mind the idea of consuming the entire works of someone is a little bit strange. The author is probably trying to make each piece as distinct from their other books as possible, to make that investment of time worthwhile, to make something unique, possibly simply because they’ve changed. Just because one enjoyed their first novel does not mean that the second or third will be to your taste. You can read faster than they can write.
(There are exceptions, of course. Evelyn Waugh claimed it took about seven weeks to write a novel. Quite what he spent the rest of his life doing is unclear. Drinking, probably.)
So, the books I’ve been rereading are from another time, a time when I wanted to have an understanding of modern literature but didn’t really know where to start so just kept reading the same people. Again and again. And now, ten years or more later it feels as though sufficient time has passed to revisit and reassess the books that made me. I got the occasionally nostalgic fuzz or the odd memory sparked by a sentence or a scene, but largely I found myself burying into the words, oblivious to everything else, looking for the screws which hold it all together.
But no women writers for some reason. Who should I have included? Who am I sufficiently au fait with to write about? I know quite a lot about JeanRhys from my interest in writerly drunken fuck-ups, but I’ve only ever seen the television adaption of Wide Sargasso Sea so that doesn’t count. E. Annie Proulx, whom I notice seems to have recently dropped the E? I got slightly obsessed with her for a while but I’m not sure I can manage her landscape drenched metaphors anymore and besides that woe-is-me-I-have-a-massive-house memoir she wrote irritated from the reviews alone. MJ Hylahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._J._Hylandnd? Great writer with powerfully intense sentences, but I know nothing about her. Margaret Atwood, been there before I think. Ali Smith? Brilliant, absolutely amazing writer full of wit and compassion and eloquence and gorgeous turns of phrase, but most of my copies of her books seem to have gone walkabout, probably in a box in a shed in Warwickshire, and whilst my girlfriend has a copy of the Accidental, ssh, it looks unread.
Nicola Barker, now there’s an author. Seemingly equally at home with short stories, short novels (Clear) and big sprawling epics (Behindlings, Darkman) she plays with language and the space on the page until it all falls apart then with a kiss of genius breathes a newer, better life into it. Phenomenal. At one point when I still retained hopes of You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer finding a publisher I had a tag line in my head of “like the bastard child of JG Ballard and Nicola Barker.” I was trying to craft a dystopian punk novel with left-wing politics, broken hearts and an onomatopoeic conversation between the narrator and the reader at its heart, but that description was still somewhat over egging the metaphorical pudding, not to mention over-stating my own talent.
So, Nicola Barker. Genius. And whilst I think I will reread Behindlings next I’m not going to rewrite anything to make myself appear more gender inclusive. What’s said is said and done is done. Besides rewriting is what I’m spending most of my time doing at the moment. I finished the opening draft of the novel about an architect who thinks he’s Phillip Marlow but finds himself stuck in Brideshead Revisted (that’s a tonal description by the way not the actual plot) back in May and have been editing and cutting and tweaking to get to a proper first draft ever since. The blog is the only free form prose I’ve had the opportunity to bash out in months. A fiddle here, a tweak there, move a sentence around, shift a semi-colon, change a full stop for a colon, that will by my writing life for the next year or so. That and cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, rewrite, cut, cut, cut. Rewriting is predominately destroying. All the difficult births your darling sentences had, no matter how much you cherish its lyrical charm, is it doing enough? No? Get rid of the git. Writing fresh words, making shit up as I like to put it, is so much easier. Now I need to immerse myself inside it all, hold the whole plot in my head, speak the voice, stick to the rules (except those consistently broken deliberately), be the whole damn thing.That’s why rereading is so important. Read once and you’re enjoying the ride, thrilling at the plot, crying with the characters, wrapped up in the author’s arms for comfort (unless, obviously, it’s rubbish). Read twice and more you can start to pull it apart, understand its anatomy, what really makes it work. Hopefully by thinking about other people’s work in that way I can understand my own and par it down to the parts that it really needs, discarding the ones I think it would be nice for it to have. If you’re looking for me over the next few months, I’ll be trapped inside my own words trying to break them and lovingly polishing the ones that survive