Remains of the Hay

Literary festivals and creative writing courses are killing serious novels, says William Cash. And Kazuo Ishiguro agrees…

Literary festivals and creative writing courses are killing serious novels, says William Cash. And Kazuo Ishiguro agrees…
 

LAST ORDERS WERE being called at the bar of the Randolph Hotel in Oxford back in April. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (pictured below left), along with his wife and daughter, and the poet Ben Okri were seated around a corner table near the bar. Ishiguro had been the recipient of the 2011 Honorary Fellowship of the Oxford Literary Festival, interviewed on the stage of the Sheldonian Theatre by Sunday Times chief fiction critic Peter Kemp.

That over 900 people had paid up to £35 for a ticket to pack into the Sheldonian to see Ishiguro’s inauguration might suggest that the state of English literary fiction was in good health.

But is it? While there is no doubt that there is a boom in literary festivals, creative writing courses and ‘starting fiction’ workshops which encourage aspiring writers to unleash their ‘inner creativity’ ­— there’s hardly a village in England that doesn’t have its own book festival — the quality of literary novels published has not necessarily got any better. I know this because for this year’s Spear’s Book Awards, our team spent months wading through endless novels — both British and American — and despite ending up with a shortlist of well-written, intelligent novels, we had to wade through an awful lot of poorly written, ill-conceived ones.

I happened to sit next to Peter Kemp at a dinner the following night. When I mentioned to him that we had struggled through so many bad novels, he agreed that ­ with a few exceptions, such as Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, which went on to win the award,­ it had been another generally disappointing year.

Why is this? Memoir had such obvious contenders as Candia McWilliam’s brutal and haunting What to Look for in Winter (which won), as well as Bill Clegg’s savagely self-coruscating debut, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which won Best First Book by making voice triumph over vice. While reading the slim volume, I thought of John Henry Newman’s line from Callista (1855): ‘Where good and ill together blent, Wage an undying strife.’

Other categories of notable achievement included the Illustrated Book nominees, which was won by John Goodall, Country Life’s architectural editor, for his revisionist, compelling and utterly scholarly yet engaging and definitive work, The English Castle. Goodall had to beat off such tough competition as the V&A’s Cult of Beauty exhibition book by Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr, David Watkin’s The Classical Country House and Café Society by Thierry Coudert.

But for fiction we had nothing like as easy a time shortlisting. When journalists or judges used to bemoan the state of English fiction, they pointed across the Atlantic to such would-be Great American Novelists as John Updike, Saul Bellow and Jonathan Franzen and lamented how unambitious and provincial most English fiction seemed by comparison.

But this can’t apply to the Spear’s Book Awards because we include all novels that are published in the English language, including those first published in America. When I mentioned this diagnosis to Ishiguro, he pulled open a plastic carrier bag and showed me a Japanese print that he had been given as a gift as part of his honorary fellowship. ‘I was delighted to accept this great honour,’ he said modestly. ‘But a side of me also wishes it could have gone to somebody younger.’
 
 
ISHIGURO HAS A point. Without being so impolite as to directly say as much, the truth is there are few seriously good English novelists under about 50 — outside of the McEwan, Ishiguro, Swift, Barnes, Amis, Boyd literary club — seriously worth getting excited about. Which is why last year we were delighted to give Alex Preston our First Book Award for his first novel, This Bleeding City, a work of remarkable confidence and promise. (Preston was an acute judge of this year’s fiction award.)

The competition within the shortlist was certainly high. In his acceptance speech, Cartwright doffed his hat to Philip Roth, the great man in Connecticut who works out of a small wooden cabin next to a tall grey clapboard house built in 1792, saying that he would make a point of mentioning to him, when they next met, that he was sorry that his work was not up to the required literary standard to win the Spear’s fiction award!

But the quality of the submissions and of the books called in raises the question, Where is the next generation of serious literary novelists? What has happened to them? Cartwright has written over fifteen novels and is approaching 60.

The modern publishing world, and its ever travelling literary publicity circus, has reached an impasse. Some sort of literary wasting disease seems to have set in. Like some Spanish chestnut disease that infects even the strongest literary timber, even our brash, bold, contemporary American novelists like Franzen seem to have become jejune.

This is both ironic and paradoxical as the literary festival ‘circuit’ is now a big bucks business, with Hay — the godfather of literary festivals — now stretching its influence and (all-expenses paid) invitations for writers to travel and speak in such exotic locations as Cartagena, Beirut, Belfast, Xalapa, Nairobi, Cape Town, Segovia, the Maldives and Kerala. And if you have to look some of those places up on the map, you won’t be alone.

There is a now a nexus of literary festivals and creative writing courses, which cross-promote and entice similar crowds. The Oxford Literary Festival handbook includes a full-page ad for people to apply for a MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University, along with another full-page ad for the Corpus Christi College Creative Writing Course in 2012, called ‘Finding the Plot: A Course for Aspiring Fiction Writers’.

But it is the publishing world — in particular the marketing demands of the fiction sector — that has lost the plot and is much to blame for the current literary malaise affecting so many publishing lists. The first reason, as Ishiguro put it to me, is that modern writers — especially literary novelists — are now regarded by publishing houses, especially in America, almost like ‘reps’, by which he means sales reps. In the old days, a travelling sales rep would drive around the country, or a state, with a suitcase of books and would do the selling himself.

These days authors — who are provided with a ‘media escort’, a savvy city insider and fixer who knows, say, LA, and knows how to avoid the traffic on the 101 Hollywood freeway if you need to get from Downtown to Santa Monica — have largely taken over from the old style of reps. When they sign their contracts to include weeks promoting themselves on the festival circuit, do a twelve-city book tour and appear on Piers Morgan and the Charlie Rose Show, what they are effectively doing is doing their publisher’s sales rep’s job for them.

Worse, it’s not really about the book signings, the media interviews and the radio appearances: it is often about keeping a major publishing house’s reputation and image intact, giving the impression to the bookstores across the US — in particular — that they are not losing out market share to a major publishing rival. So the author has to be put up at the best hotel, and driven around, and generally fawned over, in order to make it look like the publishing house is taking them seriously. The publishing world has become like the art world where art dealers are required to ‘pump up’ their client’s prices — artificially — by paying inflated prices at auction to sustain their bankability.

As one seasoned author who has been subjected to innumerable US tours put it to me: ‘Nobody knows how many books to print as nobody knows what the reviews will be like, and then the books have to be shipped by the freight-load across the country to warehouses where they pile up hoping for sales and then at the end of the hugely expensive tour, the booksellers return any books they haven’t sold which means that the publishing companies are forever in debt. It’s a hopeless commercial model.’

The result is that novelists not only get burnt out by being subjected to this marketing circus (although many enjoy the attention) but worse, the endless interviews, questioning, book signings, media appearances and speaking demands become a semi-substitute for actually writing. As a result, writers start believing their own publicity: call it Great American (or British) Novelist Syndrome.
 
 
ANOTHER PART OF the disease is how entry into the literary world, as well as being published in the first place, has become semi-professionalised. There are too many novels published, mostly without proper editing, with a scattergun approach in the hope that the occasional novel will be a hit. Too many books are written by professional journalists or broadcasters who may be able to think in monochrome, shape a basic sentence and meet a deadline but rarely have the talent or artistry to create or imagine a fictional world that draws the reader in with an emotional power that captures the ‘fever of living’, to use another Newman phrase.

If they are not also working journalists or broadcasters, then today’s younger generation of novelist is — according to Ishiguro — very likely to either have been on a creative writing course or MA programme, or teach ‘creative writing’ as a second job, or at least work as a part-time tutor at a writers retreat such as the Arvon Foundation, or perhaps lecture at a university (even Martin Amis secured a highly paid position at Manchester University to become Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing). For better or worse, teaching creative writing now often pays better than actual writing.

Almost unreported in the media when the Arts Council announced their cuts earlier this year was the £1.65 million grant that the Arvon Foundation is receiving to help run The Hurst, the former Shropshire house of John Osborne, who bequeathed it to the foundation on his death in 1994. How much of that money will go on ‘creative writing’ Arvon tutor fees?

The trouble with many creative writing courses — and this is ironic, of course, since Kazuo Ishiguro himself graduated from the University of East Anglia creative writing programme started by Malcolm Bradbury in the Eighties — is that although tutors vary widely, they have introduced an element of ‘creative template’ into writing that certainly never used to exist before. On any American creative writing short story course, for example, students will be told that the story has to have an ‘epiphany’.

One of the novels I most enjoyed reading that made it on to the Spear’s shortlist was Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, a wonderfully sharp and caustic novel about the morality of How We Live Now — how the super-rich financial classes live now, that is — that is flawed only by an unnecessary sub-plot which veers off into the underground art world which ruins the ending; as with Candia McWilliam’s memoir, better editing could have made a good book a great one.

My point here is that this ending — or ‘epiphany’ — seemed to run against the lyrical impulse of the book: it seemed tacked on as if the novel needed to adhere to some literary structure in order to make it work as a work of creative fiction. Flick open the bio of Jonathan Dee and it comes as no surprise to learn that he ‘teaches on the graduate writing programme at Columbia University and The New School’.

While novel writing is still nothing like as structured or formulaic as screenwriting has become — professional screenwriting software reminds you about a character’s ‘motivation’, ‘jeopardy moment’ and ‘catharsis’ — it is heading that way. With literary novel advances being apologetic in size, midlisters being axed and even literary publishers now selling their books on the shelves at Tesco (alongside the footballer and Jordan memoirs), perhaps it’s hardly surprising that there aren’t so many queuing up to be novelists and getting down to the business of serious writing, as opposed to cranking out a comic ‘novel’ almost like the latest author’s literary fashion accessory, and just in case your poor reader doesn’t have the time to read the entire book, why not include a cast list at the front?

In Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, which Ishiguro referred to in our conversation, Orwell wrote that the thankless and exhausting job of reviewing not only ‘involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatsoever’. By doing so, Orwell added, ‘He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain.’

Nowadays it is not only the critics who are forced to invent reactions and positions to books but also — more terminally — novelists themselves who have become increasingly self-conscious, and self-questioning, to the point that they don’t know what they think any more, even about their own work. In the past, when a critic or the public asked a writer to explain what a novel meant, or whether it was based on real events or people, novelists usually politely detached themselves from the question. They certainly didn’t feel obliged to ‘explain’ themselves or their work. As Evelyn Waugh pointedly wrote on the frontispiece of Brideshead, ‘I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.’

Ever-increasing ‘self-consciousness’ is part of the literary heart disease combined with the fact that novelists have now been turned into a band of Willy Loman-like travelling salesmen. All this has a way of eating away at the edges of the artist’s sense of self. To do good work, for the most part, writers are best left alone to get on with it. Publishers should be doing the marketing and selling. As Cyril Connolly put it in The Unquiet Grave, ‘The artist is one of those who must look alone out of the window.’

To a writer like Ishiguro, who is always being hounded by creative writing programmes, all this demand for literary self-awareness and self-revelation is not necessarily useful for novelists. He politely turns down all requests from writers’ retreats and residence programmes. ‘I’ve got my own set-up at home,’ he says. ‘If I want to go abroad, its usually because I want to take a holiday. What is happening is a loss of privacy and I think that is important for a writer.’
 

 
Illustration by George Leigh
 
IT NEVER USED
to be that way. While novelists were public figures, they never interacted with their public — Dickens perhaps being an exception — in quite such a way. Ishiguro gave the example of when he gave a reading with William Golding back in the Eighties and being mildly surprised when Golding casually mentioned — just before they opened their respective books — that he had never done a public reading before of any of his books. Ishiguro, although in his twenties, was already a veteran.

I was in Oxford at the festival to give a talk on Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, about which I wrote a book some years ago. This autumn is the 60th anniversary of the publication in September 1951 of the novel, a book that continues to appeal today.

When Greene was writing his novels, authors never did signings in bookstores and the literary festival circuit did not exist. Novelists were seen as the opening batsmen of the literary world, the ones who were expected to do the heavy lifting, the heavy living and the suffering. Greene certainly did a lot of travelling but it tended to be to places like Kenya for the Mau Mau rebellion, not the Maldives for a literary festival. He liked to quote Browning: ‘The interest is in the dangerous edge of things.’

In Greene’s world, actions have consequences. Less than two hundred yards from where I was sitting with Ishiguro was the house at 15 Beaumont Street where Greene lived with his wife Vivien when his marriage was breaking down. This was the house where he wrote part of The Heart of the Matter and entertained François Mauriac when he was pushing for him to be made an honorary fellow at a college. It was where an impassioned love letter from Greene to Catherine Walston marked ‘return to sender’ was fatally delivered in 1949 and was opened by Vivien Greene — on the day of the wedding of Prince Philip to the future Queen — finally ending his marriage. All this raw experience was used in several novels.

Yet Greene’s enduring appeal is partly because he so strictly retains the idea of what remains private to a novelist. Among his papers at John Burns Library in Boston is a letter that a female fan wrote to him after the publication of The End of the Affair: ‘This book seems to me weighted down with unhappiness and suffering as if the actual words are only the surface of it and whole lives of pain are behind it. That is why I think it must be a true record, or based on a record of real relationships … If you could just tell me whether or not it was real, I think it would help me a lot. Or at least then I would know my unhappiness has some basis.’

In the file is a carbon copy of Greene’s reply: ‘The characters are fictitious and so is the story but naturally an author tries to make his characters seem alive — or rather they come alive to himself in the writing. My object was to show a jealous and rather disagreeable character without a belief in God who becomes convinced against his will in the existence of a God who he hates … Perhaps the book is rather different from my others — I wouldn’t know that.’

Greene creates a moral framework with a scaffolding of plot, theme and location — whether it is West Africa or Clapham Common in The End of the Affair — where character and the emotional choices his creations make have real dramatic impact on their lives.

In The Heart of the Matter, Scobie knows exactly what the consequences are of his making the choice to take communion while committing adultery with his lover Helen. His wife Louise tries to get Scobie to go to communion without confession, knowing that as a Catholic he cannot take communion without confession if he is conducting an affair. As Scobie takes communion in his sinful state he is aware ‘of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue’ and prays: ‘Oh God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them.’

This was only written 60 years ago — but it feels a long way from the Hay Festival in the Maldives.