Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Work Of Art Should Justify Itself In Every Line

It takes me about a year or so to write a novel and unfortunately many of the "writing" days are like today when I just stare for four or five hours at a blank computer screen searching for the right line or word or paragraph. I've never really understood the school of thought that says you should write 1000 words before breakfast every morning. Why should you do that? Will any 1000 words do? What if it's a thousand words of rubbish? On a really good day I could write 1000 words but on most days I end up writing nothing. I haven't written anything at all since the end of August and this year I've consigned to the rubbish bin about eight or nine opening chapters that just didn't go anywhere. Joseph Conrad said that "a work of art should justify itself on every line" and while this is an impossibly high standard to uphold I think it's a nice goal to have. For the last fortnight I've been reading Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and what's amazing about that book is just how dense it is. Maybe not on every line but every paragraph and certainly every page has something on it that is either wise, well observed, funny, emotionally rich or just beautifully said. I wish all novels could be like this but they're not. I get sent a lot of crime novel galleys and so many of them don't aspire to have a beautiful sentence in the entire book: plot is all and sensation is all and how the story is to be told is meaningless to them. These books do nothing for me, literally nothing: they don't make me angry or upset, they don't make me rage against the inequities of the publishing industry, they simply have no impact on me at all. How can you get emotionally engaged in a story that was speedily written for an imagined lowest common denominator and that merely ticks crude narrative boxes at every turn? Maybe you can, but I can't. 
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After my fruitless morning I got an email this afternoon from Florence my French translator asking a question about The Cold Cold Ground; she wondered why I had called the IRA's internal security unit by a different name in the book. I was quite pleased that she had noticed this and was asking about it. Florence and Eoin McNamee in his review of The Cold Cold Ground for The Guardian were the only people to have spotted what I did there and figured out the reason why. A decision that I spent a week thinking about and rewriting got noticed by exactly two people. Is that enough to justify all that time? In a genre novel? Well, actually, yes. For me it is. For me it's very exciting that even one person understands what I'm trying to do and for two people to get it...my cup runneth over. And this, I know, is why I'll never be a best seller, I've met enough editors and publishers to appreciate that many of them (perhaps most?) are cynical creatures who don't care at all about the quality of their books or even what is inside the covers of these books. "It's all about the numbers, son," I was told early in my "career". And yes, alas, it is all about the numbers. A success in our culture is someone who shifts a million units (of anything really) and a failure is someone who is foolish enough to waste five hours of his life down in the basement staring at a screen trying to think of a nice opening sentence... 
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But then again, out of the blue, very occasionally, you'll get a letter or an email or a kind word that makes you think - stupidly or not - that it is all worthwhile after all.