A survey of Britain's youth found that many aspire to become writers. They clearly don't know how hard it is, writes Alix Christie ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Britain's most respected writers have at least one trait in common: all had childhoods steeped in a passion for reading, enabled by public libraries. At a time when government cuts threaten to close some 450 libraries around the country, the British Library has released "The Writing Life", a new two-CD set of writers discussing their life, their work and, yes, their fondness for libraries. In gathering these interviews, the British Library was not aiming for a polemic. But as affordable access to literature becomes increasingly precarious—in libraries or booksellers large and small—this collection is a reminder of its importance.
That isn't to say that the authors here speak with an agenda. The pleasure of this series is in hearing writers convey their private thoughts on their profession. We learn that Beryl Bainbridge thinks "there's no such thing as the imagination." Ian McEwan "always felt something of an outsider." Hilary Mantel believes that "In the ideal world, all writers would have a Catholic childhood, or belong to some other religion which does the equivalent for them." Howard Jacobson, the most recent Booker prize winner, spent more of his youth stockpiling books than reading them. Michael Holroyd, a biographer, fears that literature "has become the younger brother of the performing arts."
Judging from the snarky online reaction to excerpts published in the Guardian, not all readers are ready for a glimpse at the appalling hubris and harrowing self-doubt that beset most writers. But for those who seriously attempt to write—for whom this collection is explicitly intended—these voices offer great encouragement.
"Such a lot of it is about keeping up your confidence," says last year's Booker prize winner Mantel, whose own first novel took nearly 20 years to make it into print.
Stunned by a survey that showed "writer" as the number one career goal of British youth—ahead of astronaut and footballer—Sarah O'Reilly at the British Library saw the project as a way to put across the real challenges that come with the profession. Culled from hundreds of hours of archived interviews, the excerpts "provide a useful corrective to the idea that the writing life is a glamorous life," she says. Indeed, aspiring writers should anticipate inhabiting a "place of total and complete solitude," offers Linda Grant, a novelist included in the collection.
Yet these CDs are instructive, too, with authors weighing in on developing characters, finding ideas, researching context and figuring out how it all works together. The nitty-gritty of when, where and how—pencil, pen or computer? Morning or night? Each day or as the spirit calls?—are as varied as the writers. If there is a single bit of common advice, it is to (in the words of Penelope Lively): "read, read, read". About this, everyone agrees. "You learn how to structure a novel from looking at the great novels of the past," says Philip Hensher, a novelist. As Peter Porter, a late Australian poet asks, "If literature had no effect on you, why would you write it?"
"Writers are made by reading," says Mantel. "By the time I was 18 I had read such a huge number of novels that I think I knew how to write one, because I do think that's how it's done... that you learn the different ways as patterns, almost like visual patterns."
Nearly all, too, say the chief delight of writing is the ineffable process of discovery. "You don't have very much choice in the matter," says Michael Frayn, a playwright and novelist. "The thing seems to have some kind of reality in one's head... it seems to be something that one is discovering rather than inventing." For U A Fanthorpe, a late poet, "There is a way in which the poem exists before you write it." Adds Dame P.D. James, a celebrated crime novelist, "I don't think we choose our genre. I think that it—a genre—chooses us."
All would-be writers should listen to this series, as it corrects some common misconceptions. No, the work does not emerge complete and perfect, like Athena from Zeus's head. Texts are written and rewritten dozens of times. Anne Fine, a children's writer, says she has filled boxes three-feet high with drafts for any given book. No, the media appearances are not really what writers enjoy. "The book should do the speaking and I should stay at home," says Holroyd. But, he laments, now "you have to go out and blow the trumpet and bang the drum in front of your book. I think that because we're not longer a literary culture... it isn't the word that speaks, you have to perform the word a bit, you have to demonstrate it, you have to appear, you have to be the book."
This imperative of celebrity is what's most corrosive, says Wendy Cope, a poet. "I'm very depressed with this whole thing of young people just wanting to be famous for the sake of being famous. If you want to be a writer, a serious writer, your focus has to be on writing as well as you can and all those other things are incidental."
While true, this also shows that many of these writers came of age in a much quieter, gentler time. If Shakespeare were writing now, said Porter, he too would be forced to make the rounds of morning news shows. Contemporary author-recluses, such as Harper Lee and Anne Tyler, wouldn't stand a chance in today's din.
And yet, the writing life continues to capture its victims. The final word on the series goes to Maureen Duffy, a poet and novelist, who in turn quotes a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins: "What I do is me, for that I came." One hopes the Library of Congress will be inspired to capture America's most important writers the same way.
"The Writing Life: Authors Speak" is available for £16.28 from the British Library. A catalogue to the Authors' Lives oral history project is available online; the recordings are available for listening at the library in London.