Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Seething with resentment, anyone?

I think I just finished a novel, though it’s hard to be sure. There ought to be a moment when you type THE END, stagger away from your desk and crack open a bottle, but there usually isn’t. This one’s called The Book of Air and I thought I was done with it months ago. Then I got some professional feedback, did some rewriting, had a couple of friends read it, rewrote some more, delivered it to my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), responded to her modified rapture with another rethink. And now it’s probably as good as I can make it. Really. At least until an editor gets hold of it (let’s hope) and suggests that maybe parts of it could be cranked up or toned down or the whole thing radically restructured....

So finishing is a nebulous concept. 

And throughout this process there are the flashes of inspiration and the sudden bouts of writer’s remorse that have you firing up your computer when you should be asleep.  
Which is why I like to hear what other people think, so I’m not just stuck in my own head. When it comes to writing a novel, generally you’re on your own. Screenwriters collaborate but partnerships in fiction are rare. Conrad did it with Ford Madox Ford, but who else? You have to pull all those words out of your own brain. But once you’ve got something readable, why not get someone to read it. It’s a lot to ask, and you have to choose your reader carefully, but if you’d put all that time into writing a novel wouldn’t you rather find out what wasn’t working, while you still had a chance to fix it?

Actually, I start earlier than that. I swap work in progress, chapter by chapter, with a novelist friend, whose writing I admire, though it’s different from mine, and whose opinion I value.

She and I may not be typical. In a review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth in the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones says, “we know that writers, whether seasoned or just starting out, seethingly resent the suggestions for improvements made by professionals, let alone amateurs (“Draw me a what’s-it cube” London Review of Books 13 September 2012).

I wonder if he’s right.


  1. Collaborative fiction writers? The only examples I can think of are Somerville and Ross, mildly humorous chroniclers of Anglo-Irish life. I'm not sure how their collaboration worked.

  2. Recalling collaborations between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and reasoning that there must be many other such poolings of resources, I thought about this business again. The collaboration of Edith Oenone Somerville and Martin Ross (aka Violet Florence Martin) reminded me that there was also Michael Field, who was actually a pair of Victorian poets (Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper), who formed both a lesbian and a literary partnership; they were friends of Browning, who called them his 'two dear Greek women'.

    I began Googling and there do seem to be quite a few pairs of novelists, many of them women, who write or have written together. Where writers go, as we know, critics follow, and my Google search threw up at least one book, Lorrain Mary York, Rethinking Women's Collaborative Writing, that deals with this subject. I've not read the book, but looking at some of the parts of it available in preview mode via Google Books it seems to have interesting things to say about the collaborative writing process and how the collaborators themselves regarded it. It's keen, for example, to get beyond an idea (common in studies of Renaissance drama that try to identify which bits are Beaumont and which Fletcher, and so on) that one can necessarily identify which author wrote which bit, or that there is a "senior" partner, who has the "inspiration". To counter this, York quotes some good examples of the writers saying that it's not always easy for themselves to know who is who. Her accounts of Somerville and Ross shuttling their manuscripts back and forth between country houses in County Cork before they lived together, and of the Fields passing the paper across the table, are vivid and telling.

  3. Thanks for this, Phil. I'm fascinated by the story of Bradley and Cooper, whom I'd never heard of, marginalised as writers, but at the heart of the literary establishment. Was Browning speaking in code when he called them Greek?

  4. I've just read that Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman are cooperating on a serial zombie novel.