Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Abandoned Lands of Literature

A fascinating and honest piece from Mark Lawson in the Guardian, about "abandoned works". He's mostly talking about his own experience which I will come to in a second, but starts with asking around other novelists. I like the line that "Julian Barnes...had no missing fictions of his own" as it fits with the idea we have of him as a patrician aesthete; I don't particularly believe it. In the books that weren't pile, he mentions that Crace's last novel, longlisted for the Booker replaced an unpublished one, called "Archipelago". I seem to remember in James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow that he'd uncovered a couple of unfinished novels early in the career that seem particularly un-Bellowesque, which Lawson might have mentioned. I know a number of contemporary novelists whose "second novel" has been quietly forgotten after negative thoughts from agent or publisher - possibly because it was too dissimilar to their first. Having been published for what they do well, writers often have a go at something they do less well, only return to the original well-spring. These abandoned lands will more than likely never see the light of day.

"Finished" is a funny word as well - "abandoned" does seem the better one. Though whether you ever full abandon the ideas is another matter. What interests me is how you can forget works that you never quite got on with, as they ran out of steam - alot depends on how you write. I imagine the writer who gets to the end regardless is as much a consummate craftsperson as anything else; and there's something to be said for that. Of the novels I've finished the only one I really don't rate was where I was trying to write something for a competition and I'd taken on criticism about a previous work. I got to the end, but the work was boring and hardly deserved the effort. It was a lesson I had to learn.

More puzzling are the reasons for Lawson's abandoned fictions. He's remarkably honest, given that he probably knows he'll attract a bit of derision for it; but one is struck by how a certain type of contemporary novelist is flailing around looking for a saleable idea: I suppose not being a commerical writer - or one who researches much - I've never thought of this. I'm reminded of the character in Tender is the Night who dedicates years to writing a particular scientific paper, only for it to be rejected when he submits it as they've just accepted one on the same subject. I always thought this was Fitzgerald's wry comment on "writing for the market".  The unforeseen moment when Lawson meets the child of one of the character's he's writing about is an obvious reason enough for stopping a particular work; though "faction" surely requires an Albert Goldman style steeliness. Lawson comes across the better for having stopped writing the work; though one wonders about why he'd started it in the first place? Perhaps his job as an arts journalist puts him in a uniquely difficult situation. I kind of imagine a pack of novelist-journalists circling round for the juiciest contemporary stories. His honesty to admit he was writing a book called "Di(e)" a fictional what if Princess Diana hadn't died is admirable, as it sounds a terrible book, a terrible idea - but I'm more worried where he abandons a novel because a book with similar themes has also come out at the same time. This is the area where the contemporary novelist runs the same risks as the historical one.

Certainly agents warn against following the latest trend, as chances are they've already excepted all the vampire books or whatever is in the shops now, and are actually looking for the next one.

What I think Lawson highlights is that the myth and mystery of writing is as likely to be influenced by the market for it as anything else. I had an unfinished internet novel rejected not because it was too similar to Matt Beaumont's "e the novel" but because the agent felt there wasn't room to sell it. (That internet was a fly by night thing wasn't it?)

I began thinking of my own unfinished works. There's "Sleeping Next to God" a millenial noir that I abandoned in 1997 to write the novel I wrote on my M.A. Had I not done the masters then surely I'd have finished it? Not much call for millenial novels (with a hint of the second coming) around 2013 I imagine. Then there's "All this Scenery" a novel that I read from as "in progress" as long ago as 1999 and really should finish some day. A novel about the Manchester music scene, it, at least, remains ever relevant!

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