Absolute Beginners

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Everyone has a novel inside them, the saying goes. It’s just a matter of getting it out. With the glut of celebrity biogs, political kiss-and-tells, and the ascendancy of the book club, it is undeniable that writing is sexy again. The fiction world has undoubtedly benefited from this: even the re-vamped terminology breathes an air of sophistication – the phrase ‘debut novelist’ evoking the old world glamour of the debutante, or more suggestively, the stage debut of the actor or singer. But with more and more budding novelists warming to their work, and writers increasingly expected to play a part in their own publicity, are the pressures placed on the greenhorns of the literary world simply too great to bear? This PEN event sought to address the dilemmas of the young novelist by bringing together four writers with varying degrees of innocence and experience, to discuss their relationship to writing, being ‘a writer’, and the publishing world.

In his brief introduction, Director Jonathan Heawood alluded to PEN’s origins in ‘The Tomorrow Club’, a group founded in 1917 to foster meetings of minds, bringing together not only writers from different cultures, but forging dynamic links between the generations – drawing together the grand old men of letters and their enfants terribles, and enabling friendships to flourish between the established and the new. Introducing the writers on the panel, Chair Alex Clarke, deputy editor of Granta, continued the educational theme, quipping that they represent the full complement of college grades, from Senior student Toby Litt and Junior Rachel Seiffert, to Sophomore Naomi Alderman and Freshman Joe Dunthorne. Indeed, the college reference seems doubly fitting, since all four writers are graduates of creative writing programmes – themselves a relatively recent phenomenon – three having attended the now-famous course at UEA, which started the careers of Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Andrew Miller.

Nonetheless, when asked how they started writing, all four novelists acknowledged that prose had not always been their guiding passion. His long limbs draped across his body, bleach-blond hair attractively tousled, it is easy to believe Joe Dunthorne when he recalls, “I was going to be one of the greatest bass players of all time,” – until, that is, “I realised I had no sense of rhythm”. Though this was still several years before he started working on his bestselling debut novel Submarine, Dunthorne was certainly still an ‘enfant’ in the literary world when he became a published author at the tender age of 22. By contrast, Rachel Seiffert described how she came to writing after working for many years as a film editor and scriptwriter: having been given her big break in the post-Trainspotting boom, she found the male-dominated world of directing was an unforgiving place for a woman, and started writing in order to reassert an awareness not only of herself but of her cultural roots – her novels tightly constellated around themes of family, excavation and origins. Toby Litt’s recollection of his early years is typically mercurial: having wanted to be a painter, a songwriter, an architect and a hat maker (‘I made one hat. It was my best hat and my worst hat’), he eventually came to writing through poetry. Recalling Ernest Hemingway’s famous ‘Six Word Story’, Litt claims his own would be ‘my first proper girlfriend, Emily Bronte’, though his desire to be ‘the equivalent of Salvador Dali in poetry’ suggests the relationship may have been doomed from the start. Naomi Alderman has perhaps the longest standing literary credentials, having first discovered a talent for elaboration in bible class at her orthodox Jewish primary school. But despite precocious beginnings – she attempted her first novel aged 14 – Alderman spent 6 years working in a lawyers’ office, her writing skills dedicated not to novels, but to computer games.

As the conversation got underway, an undercurrent of self-deprecation emerged – all four assert that they never set out to be ‘a writer’, and there is a sense in which, even while writing, each maintained a deliberate vagueness about the task they were engaged upon. Working on Submarine, Dunthorne claims he didn’t even know it was a novel until he was half way through, while the tripartite structure of Seiffert’s Booker-shortlisted debut The Dark Room is arguably more an articulation of her ambivalence about the novel-writing process than a bold aesthetic statement.

All four panellists acknowledged the significance of first recognising oneself as ‘a writer’ – a moment tinged with a subtle sense of hubris which they approach with caution. Litt first tried on the title at a safe distance from home – while living in the Czech Republic, where, discovering all his friends had business cards, he ordered his own, which read ‘Toby Litt: Writer’. Naomi Alderman remembers the delicious moment of looking around her first literary party shortly after winning an Ash award and first allowing herself to think, ‘maybe I am a writer’.

The delicate but crucial balance between the public and the private formed a persistent undertone throughout the discussion – not only in terms of self-recognition, but also recognition of, and by, a reading audience. Writers don’t do it for money or fame, Alderman wryly concedes – as a bestselling American chick lit novelist once told her, ‘being a famous writer is like being a famous weaver’. All four panellists talked about writing their first novel primarily for themselves – nevertheless the act of writing a book necessarily has a public dimension, as Alderman’s description of the novel as ‘a fan dance’ – a performance caught between revelation and concealment – suggests, encapsulating the novelist’s uneasy oscillation between disclosure and reticence. The necessary loss of innocence inherent in publication was perhaps most acutely felt by Alderman herself, whose novel was greeted by a hail of criticism from the orthodox Jewish community. Though she speaks of writing as ‘a concealed place to be subversive, not like streaking through Hendon’, publication arguably had a more wide-reaching effect than any flasher – exposing her community’s weaknesses and hypocrisies far further afield, and blowing her own cover in both the local and the literary community.

Publication brings new pressures to bear not only from the outside, but from within publishing itself, where delivery dates for second novels and contractual obligations impose unfamiliar constraints upon the author. When asked when his own second novel is due for delivery, Joe Dunthorne promptly – but rather tellingly – replied ’31st February 2010′. He looked momentarily perplexed when this raised a laugh from the audience, before hastily correcting his mistake, explaining slightly sheepishly that he had factored in a period of at least 2 months grace. Dunthorne’s next book already promises to be a very different proposition to Submarine – in a recent interview, which allegedly prompted anxious phone calls from his agent, he described it as a ‘complicated multi-character, semi-fantasy, semi-gangster story’- going on to remark that he thought it would be a ‘fun thing to do because it seemed like the worst idea in the world’. There is a rebelliousness to this attitude which bespeaks the added pressure of expectation placed on a second novel: a felt loss of the first-timer’s immunity to recognition, and an awareness that the protective carapace of anonymity has been stripped away.

The two more experienced writers contrasted interestingly in their approaches to this problem – adopting very different strategies in order to create a sense of privacy within their work. With no book deal yet in place for her next novel, Rachel Seiffert confessed to a sense of freedom similar to that of the first time novelist – having temporarily exempted herself from the publishing process, she feels that she is once more writing ‘for me’. Now with nine novels to his name (and another 3 rumoured to be already written), Toby Litt has tackled the problem more explicitly, grappling with it within the very structures of his writing. Whereas for Alderman writing is a concealed subversion, Litt is more brazen in his resistance: his novels are arguably a series of elaborate feints, their nimble genre-bending a way of constantly ‘playing truant’ from traditional literary conventions. From the outset, he has delighted in assuming borrowed robes, his protean costume changes of style, tone and subject – often performed with dizzying speed – his own riposte to the pressures of exposure.

Yet another challenge to the writer’s privacy is mounted by a literary world which increasingly demands that its writers perform the role of the writer in person as well as in prose. Casting an ironic eye to the audience, Litt admits that to stand out in the ever-swelling crowd, writers are encouraged to join the milk round of book tours and festivals, and to self-publicise through readings, residencies and interviews. This is especially true for the literary novelist, who, he claims, have acquired the same status as poets, finding it increasingly hard to make a living by writing alone.

As the night drew to a close, it was clear that the four writers sitting around the table have come a long way from their first beginnings as aspiring rockstar, director, games designer and hat maker. The gradual process of becoming a writer – from self-definition to acknowledgement by the wider literary community, has presented challenges and dilemmas to which each has sought highly individual solutions – whether it is the problematic second novel, or the continued need to sustain a balance between the public and the personal over the course of a writing career. What is clear as the audience in the Guardian Newsroom applauded, is that the philosophy which underpinned the ‘Tomorrow Club’ is still very much alive and well today, not only in bringing writers together across stylistic and generational divides, but also in bringing them together with a burgeoning literary community of critics and enthusiasts alike.

Report by Lettie Ransley

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/absolutebeginners/

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