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.