THE SINS OF LITERATURE: BBC R4 0900hrs 5 August 2013

Publicity for this series passed me by and it was by chance that I caught the last ten minutes of it on radio this morning. Intrigued, I immediately went and listened to the whole thing on iPlayer. It was fascinating to listen to authors of the quality and success of Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson and Deborah Mogach talking about novel writing and being a novelist. The episode title was ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore’. It didn’t.

 One thing that struck me was how certain things are self evident to one writer as a keystone to the novel and either irrelevant or anathema to another. The VS Pritchett comment ‘There’s no such thing as plot, only characters’ was trotted out as an introduction to a discussion about character development. Deborah Mogach waxed lyrical about how vital an interest in character development was and she described a sort of ‘method writing’ whereby she became the character for a period in order to immerse herself in that person’s psyche, to understand how the character reacted as they went through the book. Will Self confessed to a total lack of interest in character. Mogach suggested later in a section on the dodgy middle of novels that the immersion in and development of character was what got the author through that period (the bit readers skip). At this point Robert McCrum, the ring master of the series, cunningly allowed Paul Auster and Siri Hustverdt to recall an encounter with Mickey Spillane who observed, ‘Nobody reads a book to get to the middle’. Spillane at that time had sold something like 175 million books and didn’t worry about fitting into the ‘literary’ fiction world. He also said to them ‘I am a writer, you guys are authors.’ In the pecking order of the literary world that put them clearly way above him. No doubt he failed to avoid cliché, adverbs and repetition of words. Interesting that Amis derided this last piece of advice often given to aspiring writers; ‘avoid repeating a word.’ His advice was that, if it were the word you needed, you should use it three times to show you knew what you were doing.

So an iconoclast perhaps. On the other hand he revealed he finished Lionel Asbo (could anyone who hadn’t got his reputation get away with such a clichéd name/title?) and then spent a year revising it. His reason was he hadn’t put any suffering in it. I guess spending a year rewriting something produces sufficient suffering for a whole raft of novels.

This led us neatly to McCrum’s comment that ‘finishing’ the novel was in fact as Churchill said about something else entirely: ‘Not the end, nor even the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning’. Editors and rewrites again.

I shall definitely be listening to the second programme, a room of one’s own ‘Thou Shalt not Hide’.

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