Any bookshop and any newspaper book review section includes many titles by people you have never heard of, and a recent editorial by Alan Taylor in the Scottish Review of Books brought home the startling issue about the huge number of books which are getting written and published but not read.
Like many bookish children, I once harboured an ambition to be a writer (Leaf Collecting is about as far as I have got) and I once read a stimulating book of advice on the topic, written in the 1960s or early 1970s, specifically on how to write a novel which would definitely be published. I am sure the author was the now deceased novelist and critic John Wain – although infuriatingly I can find no conclusive corroboration on this from the supposedly encyclopedic internet.
Let’s assume the author was Wain. He did not share the axiom that everyone has a book in them. On the contrary, he suggested, an aspiring novelist is an eccentric, a misfit, who shouldn’t expect to find many kindred spirits who will share or understand their dedication or obsession. Writing groups already existed then, but I recall that his opinion was these were merely social distractions which would not help the determined writer to actually write and complete a novel. That dogmatic view certainly helped the literary teenager to see himself as part of an old noble tradition, stuck in his garret, suffering for his art.
Wain was very keen that the serious writer should just sit down and write, regularly, every day. This is advice which might still be offered and followed today. Another tip which seemed however to contradict that one was that you should not attempt to write your complete novel much earlier than the age of 30. This is in a way also perfectly sensible – just out of school or university you’ve got a lot of other things to do – but still exasperating to read when you are ambitious, have a high opinion of your talent and are many years yet away from 30. Later, Martin Amis and Zadie Smith each published their first novels at 24 and Bidisha did at the age of 18.
The classic wisdom that you should always write from your own experience was something Wain shared. I remember his pithy form of expression: “Even if you haven’t had such basic experiences as making love or watching someone close to you die, you still have enough experiences for a thousand novels…” He also insisted that in characterisations you should treat all human beings fairly. To which he added wryly that at one time it would have been necessary to say that even poor tramps are human beings – but now it was probably equally necessary to say that even rich aristocrats are human beings.
At the end of the book was the chapter which is the most relevant to me now. He listed some writers whom all aspiring writers should read. He drew a distinction between writers who were serious and others who were trivial, emphasising that serious writers need not be pompous or turgid or dull. Shakespeare, he said, was one writer who was always serious. Unfortunately I did not copy Wain’s full list of recommended reading and I remember only one title, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When you have read this novel, he said, you actually won’t be any better equipped to write your own novel. But if you don’t read it, he went on (a bit didactic and sententious this, but when you are young you can take very clear directions) you’ll have devalued yourself as a writer and a human being.
Alan Taylor’s article also helpfully calculates how many books people might read in a year, and therefore how many (or few) you might expect to read before you die. My reading speed these days is pitifully slow so my target should be low, and principally works which I’ve been planning to read for three or four decades and never yet got around to. Such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, copies of which sit nearby waiting.
Ulysses was a lot of fun 27 years ago in preparation for my first visit to Dublin, and I feel confident that it would repay a second reading. Actually, I have already managed The Brothers Karamazov, long ago, but I think I still have that copy, so maybe I should give it another chance to provide the value which John Wain promised…