Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Be careful what you write

I’ve just finished reading the galley proofs for the Pfoxchase edition of The Figurehead (and I love the excuse to post yet another picture of the gorgeous cover which Sessha Batto designed for it). I’ve been busy with other books, so I haven’t looked at this one for a while and it’s interesting to read it almost as an objective outsider. Of course, I remembered the characters, the main events, the lovers, its overall shape and whodunit, but not the details, especially those which reveal things about the writer.

That may sound strange, since I wrote it, but it simply confirms what I’ve always said about books, plays and poems – we put much more of ourselves into them than we realise. As well as its focus on murder, romance and history, The Figurehead has attitudes to commerce and passion, the rich-poor divide and the importance of community which I wrote about in my last posting. But then, I was being autobiographical and referring specifically to my beliefs and intuitions; when I was writing about people in the Aberdeen of 1840, I wasn’t aware of how much those same beliefs were influencing my choices. It’s only when you get some distance between yourself and a work that you can appreciate just how intricately your inner self is bound into the fiction you’re creating.

Fashions in literary criticism (no, I’m not claiming I write ‘literature’) always keep changing and, quite often, the tension is between whether you need to know anything about a writer’s life to understand his/her works or whether the works are independent items, with enough of their own, internal coherence and referential information to make the writer irrelevant. I’m inclined to accept both approaches. If you’re swept along by a narrative, made to think, laugh, cry, or believe its characters are more real than those around you as you read, it’s served its purpose and it could have been written by a monkey with a typewriter. On the other hand, if you then discover biographical details about the author which ‘explain’ why he/she made certain choices, there are other resonances of the work which open new perspectives.

So, whether we like it or not, our writing reveals us in ways of which we’re unaware at the time. And, to take that a step further, I know that we only see some of the secrets we’re betraying and that reviewers may see things which we may not want to know about ourselves, things we deny. I may have said this before but it’s worth repeating in this context. Victor Hugo (out of favour now but by any standards a truly great writer), wrote that, when he saw a new play of his performed before an audience for the first time, it was as if his soul had climbed onto the stage and lifted its skirts for all to see.

Having said that, though, if anyone were to set The Figurehead alongside The Sparrow Conundrum to see what my soul looks like, they’d immediately be on the phone to a psychiatric unit.


  1. It's an interesting one, isn't it? How much we reveal - half-known and unwittingly - but also how much is read into what we've written... and there's no guarantee this will be accurate. People project, it's impossible to prevent and I think to fret about it would kill creativity.

    I can't remember who said something along the lines of "write as if nobody will read it"... it takes bravery to do that.

  2. In fact, Sandie, I have a friend who does just that - the difference is that she literally writes knowing that nobody will ever read it because she doesn't show it to anyone. I know that's a different point but I find that intriguing too.
    You're right, though, about people reading stuff into what we right. The interest there is what it reveals about them.

  3. I've read them both at this point. The fact that I enjoyed two very different books that 'lay your soul bare,' as it were, either means all is ok, or neither one of us should be allowed outside without some sort of escort.

    I'm fine with both. :-)


  4. Profound analysis Richard. Safer for the general public if we stay inside then.

  5. An ongoing conundrum, Bill - does it matter if we know anything about the author? I don't think so, as I read every book for the characters in the story.

    But I guess all writers include a little bit of themselves in each book or story - how can we not since our feelings and experiences make us who we are, which surely must leak into some of our writing. Hm - I'd rather not think about it, as a writer - might make us too conscious of ourselves.

  6. No danger of that, Rosemary. Once we get into it, surely we still get lost in the fiction and, as you say, the characters who inhabit and create it take over. Interesting though how, even though we're unaware of it - and don't want to be aware of it either - bits of us still intrude.

  7. We understand. Completely.
    (All seven of 'Us'!)

  8. A little off-topic but how do you get blogger to let you show your books like that?

  9. Hi LV. Which particular bit are you asking about: the slide show, the covers down the right hand column, or the images that go with the text?