Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Indulge in a happy imagining: a publisher has just offered you your first contract. Hooray! Break open the sparkly stuff and send me chocolate for my invaluable advice.

And then, before you drift off into permanent cloud-nine-land, tell me something: are you ready for it? Specifically, are you ready for the fact that whatever type of writing you do, you will have to defend it. If you write literary fiction, you'll have to put up with a) not selling enough books to buy the jam for your bread and b) people turning up their noses at your pretentiosity. If, on the other hand, you are such a crawling low-brow that you write - God forbid, perish the thought, OMG etc etc - crime fiction .... then be prepared to be well and truly looked down on.

(And let's not even think about what you'll have to deal with if you write chick-lit or - pause to draw three deep breaths - kids' books. The sound of a deflating ego will become familiar to you rather quickly.)

Don't believe me? Well, John Banville is a man who knows. Not only is he, obviously, John Banville, Booker-prize-winning (and therefore erudite and literary ...) author, but he is also, under the name Benjamin Black, a hugely successful crime writer. And he has just put his size elevens in it at the Harrogate Crime Festival. Not a place you'd want to cause a stushie, not with all those crime writers around: scary people who delight in doing very nasty things to others and having their bodies turn up in disgusting states of decay.

You'll need to read the article before you read on here. See, I've got a bit of an issue with the message. Not that I'm one of those silly people who think everything is equal and all must win prizes and that Katie Price deserves to win a literary prize as much as JB.

My issue is this: all he said was that it took less time to write the required words of a crime novel. Is that the same as saying there's less skill? (Isn't he actually phenomenally extra skilful because he can do both?) Is someone who can make intricate sugar decorations for a wedding cake, which takes hours and hours, a better and more skilful cook than someone who can conjure gorgeous flavours from a few perfectly-prepped, inspirationally-seasoned and cleverly-combined ingredients to produce a mouth-watering meal in minutes?

Is how long you take over something the mark of its brilliance? Was Leonardo Da V a better artist than Picasso because he took longer and angsted more about the detail? Or the perfectionist Mozart a better player than the best improvising jazz pianist? Was Flaubert's agonised paragraph better than one that he managed to write in substantially less than a week? Or was he possibly just a tad precious and maybe needed to practise a bit more to get quicker ... (You can picture Mrs Flaubert. "Hurry up Gus, your tea's getting cold. Are you still on that same sentence? Never mind, dear: you'll get the hang of it soon enough.")

Instead of measuring writing skill in how slowly the individual writer chooses the words, should we not measure it in how well he achieves his aim, how perfectly he inspires and delights his intended readers? Whoever those readers may be? Otherwise, don't we have a somewhat absurd situation whereby more respect is accorded to the literary writer who takes ten years than the one who took only seven?

Yes, by some measurements, literary fiction is cleverer; but by other measurements - for example how well it taps into the human love of story - crime is cleverer. As for how well it pays the bills ... **Reginald Hill's wife gives the right answer there.

(**BuffyS - I am quite sick of how clever you are and how much better your reading skills are than mine. And no, sqrl, I'm still not paying you? OK? I do not give money to sqrls, however well they can read.)

Anyway, please stop worrying whether your chosen genre is high-brow or low-brow - just worry about how well you can do it.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Voltaire write Candide in three days? Or is that an urban myth?

Maybe if he'd spent -six- days, it'd be twice as good!


Nicola Morgan said...

You could be right - and certainly I'm happy to believe anything that proves my point!

BuffySquirrel said...

Sqrl here. It was Reginald Hill's wife who made the money-making comment :).

Still not gonna pay me, huh?


Rebecca said...

I wrote a poem in five minutes that ended up being my first sale to Highlights. This after sending them countless poems that I had agonized over. Go figure.

Lost Wanderer said...

If we are to judge by the time it takes to write a book, someone like Nora Roberts who produces enough books that publishers have a hard time keeping up, wouldn't be on best-seller lists regularly.

Some writers are naturally or by their circumstances faster than others, and some books are just faster to write than others. I don't think the time signifies anything.

I definitely agree that it is the quality of the end result that counts.

Nicola Morgan said...

BuffyS - god, you're annoying, even for a squirrel!!! (Annoyingly right.) See correction. She says through gritted teeth ...

Gem said...

This is always going to happen, though. Look at the art world and Jack Vetriano. Critics hate him. Public love him. Go figure.

Maggie Dana said...

My reaction, too, when I read about the kerfuffle Banville's words caused at Harrowgate. Honestly, guys, we've got a lot more to fuss over than a supremely talented author who inadvertently pissed off a lot of people who're probably jealous and wanted a way to strike back.

Who cares how long it takes to write something. If a book's good, if it entertains its readers, if it doesn't disappoint or let them down (no matter the genre), then that book (and its author) is doing its job.

Well done Mr. Banville for being good enough to write in two genres. (Will I be slammed for calling lit-fic a genre?)

catdownunder said...

Voltaire might have physically written Candide in three days but there would almost certainly have been years of conscious and unconscious thought and preparation involved. John Banville might write a crime novel in less time than another type of novel but all the previous work he has put into writing will almost certainly have come into it as well.
The time taken to physically put something on the page is not an indicator of how long it really takes to write something.

Michael Malone said...

Nicola, I was at Harrogate but I missed that particular session so I can't fully comment. However, a pal was and he likes Banville, but came away disappointed. He did get the impression that Banville felt he was "slumming" it by being there. But mostly he was disappointed because Banville was a miserable wee so and so when he asked for a signature on his book.

T. Anne said...

You're right there will be a stigma with whomever your speaking to unless of course you happen to write in their favorite genre ;)

Ebony McKenna. said...

I love what I write, and write what I love.
YA, romance, science fiction.
Way to marginalise myself!

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post, Nicola.

Having been to the Harrogate Crime Writers Fest a few times (but not this year alas--it used to be a short walk away from my house!)I can only say that John Banville may be a clever sod but did himself no favours last week. Silly man. And every author should be gracious when signing books for readers who've taken the trouble to buy a copy.

Incidentally, I met Kate Atkinson at a previous festival and she was charming, funny, self-deprecating and friendly; not snobbish or superior in any way. Some people say she writes literary fiction. I say she just writes fabulous novels.

Some people write quickly. Others don't. It's as simple as that. Mozart's hand-written music manuscripts are without blots or blemishes and as perfect as if he worked it all out in his head before he wrote it all down. Beethoven's, in contrast, were messy scribbles and so full of crossings out and corrections that he often made holes in the paper.

Mozart wrote 50 symphonies in less time than it took Beethoven to complete 9.

The question as to who was the greater genius is irrelevant. They both were--in their different ways.

Helena Halme said...

Could it be that if you spend a long time writing stuff you never show to anyone, then write the 10th manuscript in a few days, everyone goes, wow. You learned your craft and when you're a master work gets done quickly. Just a theory.

Stroppy Author said...

Some books are easy to write and some aren't - and different people find different things hard/easy. Absolutely true that learning the craft *can* make some books quicker to write, but it's not guaranteed. I think a lot has to do with the idea and whether it turns out to be easy to communicate - which you can't always tell in advance. I have books that have taken a matter of hours and books that have taken years.

As for whether Candide would have been better if Voltaire had spent longer on it - it might have been worse. It's easy to spoil something by tinkering with it because you don't think you've invested enough time in it.

Thomas Taylor said...

It also sounds like the audience had a chip on its collective shoulder.

I write for small children. When people ask me what I do, their eyes light up when I say, 'I'm a writer...', but then they look blank when I add, '...and an illustrator.' By the time I've explained who my readership are, they are either jumping up and down with excitement (and telling me about their picture book idea), or trying hard to cover up their disappointment. About one in six say something like:

'Oh, I could never work with children.'


'Are you hoping to do something for grown-ups one day?'

janettecurrieconsultancy said...

Banville uses a different name for his crime fiction - for me that says everything. He's realistic. To be taken seriously you need to avoid cliched writing and genre fiction. To make a lot of money you need to write genre fiction and add cliches.
That's just life.

Nicola Morgan said...

Using a different name can be for diffeent reasons than some kind of embarrassment - eg Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell. And I *do* beg to differ with your view that to make money you have to write cliches! I know some writer do add cliches but it's absolutely not required or desirable!

I also think there are plenty of writers who are taken seriously in every sense of the word despite writing genre fiction. Kate Atkinson? Bernice Rubens? Iain Banks? Not to mention loads of them writing in the days before people got uppity about literariness.

Nicola Slade said...

"whatever type of writing you do, you will have to defend it"

OK, here goes. Deep breath:

'My name is Nicola Slade and I write romantic comedy AND Victorian murders. (And the murder stories have laughs in as well). And I am very proud of myself for doing so & even prouder that I have a contract.'

Phew, I said it.(And yes, I have been asked occasionally if I've ever thought of writing a 'proper' book.)


Paul Lamb said...

It's all about story telling, and there are all kinds of stories. One genre isn't better or more worthy or more clever than another. If they hit the highest points of their particular genre/goal, then they are the best of their kind. No more and no less.

Geez, the last thing we need in our industry is to be backstabbing each other.

Nick Green said...

> Was Leonardo Da V a better artist than Picasso because he took longer and angsted more about the detail? Or the perfectionist Mozart a better player than the best improvising jazz pianist?

I would say Yes, and Yes, but I otherwise agree the general point!

Bach wrote such a huge amount of music so quickly, it would take almost a lifetime just to transcribe it all, yet he's considered one of the very greatest.

And crime fiction is not inherently inferior in any way. How can subject matter have any bearing on quality? You might just as well say all books with a protagonist named Ben are brilliant.

Megan said...

You've been tagged!