While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

(Not So) Brilliant Failures: Why Every Novelist Deserves A Loss Leader or Two

I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in New Zealand literature to read Gregory O’Brien’s 2008 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture (care of NZ Books Abroad) which he delivered last week.

Some highlights:

Brilliant failures are more desirable than sedate successes. Far better that writers aim for largeness of vision, dynamism and risk, and then fall short, rather than adhering to some prevailing, complacent notion of excellence. Baxter’s late poetry is a great example of a writer pulling back from achieved and recognised excellence, pushing poetry into rough, uncharted territory. His greatest poems are, you could argue, his least excellent ones…

[To which I would say: ‘Ah, but at some point you must come close enough to success to get noticed!’]

Literature is not a track event. Everyone is not running in the same direction—nor should they be. If literature is a race then it is one where, when the starting gun is fired, the participants run off each in their own direction. It is only arts funders and prize-givers who line writers up on some invented racetrack, facing the same ribbon…

And the list of works/authors mentioned would make an impressive To Be Read pile.

Next, I would point you to Maggie Rainey-Smith’s post on Leaf Salon, which compare’s Greg’s plea for the laboratory of literature with the much more market-driven view of literature from Australian literary agent Sophie Hamley.

I’d agree that the middle ground is often over-looked in these sort of State of The Nation Addresses, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a desirable place to dwell. Until Mr. Pip, Lloyd Jones was probably in the middle-ground (he wrote books about rugby and Albania, got reviewed, but was far from a celebrity). Now he’s just won the $60,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and it seems like he’s always been the ne plus ultra of NZ Letters. Not so.

There’s something to be said for apprenticeships. These days it’s virtually impossible to have a book-length apprenticeship in the US and UK, and to a lesser extent in Australia, but the possibility still exists in New Zealand. I think.

I started reading Don DeLillo’s The Names (1982) yesterday. The main reason was it’s set in Greece. A secondary reason was: this was the book he wrote before White Noise (1985) which is one of my favourite books. But it got me thinking about how DeLillo published eight novels before White Noise. I haven’t read them all, but if there’re anything like Great Jones Street, I’m not missing much. Once White Noise came out and DeLillo won the National Book Award, I’ll bet people started looking at him in a different, ‘Our Lloyd’ kind of way.

Things must have clicked after that, as he then knocked out Libra, Mao II and the behemoth that is Underworld. I wonder if DeLillo could have “knocked out” these four books (all ‘brilliant failures’ in their own way) if he hadn’t paid his dues as a mid-list author dispensing shiny-but-not-exactly-brilliant failures for 14 years??

It’s one thing to expect authors to cut their teeth on short fiction for little or no reward. But it’s another to expect them to knock out novel after novel in the pursuit of perfection without publishing one or two of those learning experiences. Book length publication means feedback from people who haven’t said no. It means the author is forced to push ahead into new waters, or if they must regurgitate, they better have a bloody good reason. It means non-writers will give them a break for about six months. It means they get money, even if it’s only enough to cover all the printing and postage costs that got them to the point of publication. It means that, when it finally clicks for them, and their books find readers and praise and prominent positions in bookstores without the slightest effort by the author, these readers and praisers will have something to go back to. These first failures mightn’t be brilliant by themselves, but I guarantee you, if the writer is worth a damn, the whole story will be better for having these hiccups than for not.

So, struggling writers and penny-pinching publishers, hear the cry of the long-tailed, far-sighted spectre of Literature: You cannot read smoke.


Rachael King said...

Interesting post, Craig. I agree that it seems today that it is harder to build up your career slowly, especially outside of NZ. Many aspiring authors dream of the big advance and the two-book deal, but the reality is that if you get one and then your book 'fails' (ie doesn't make back the advance) you can be dumped just like that. Much better to build up slowly, and I think you're right, I think it's easier to do that in NZ. As long as you write good books here, you will get them published - NZ publishers don't expect to make money from NZ fiction, they are, as you say, loss leaders. I was talking to my NZ publisher the other day and she said the usual amount of novels sold is 800-1200. And if you sell this many, they will still keep publishing you, and nurturing your career, and one day you might hit the jackpot as Lloyd has. Even Elizabeth Knox didn't become a household name until her 5th book (I think it was her 5th or thereabouts), The Vintners Luck.

Poor old UK writers I don't think get the same chance to build their careers (and when I say career, I'm not really talking about making much of a living).

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

Thanks Craig, for the link to my posting on Leafsalon. I enjoyed your comments around the idea of an 'apprenticeship' and I have a real soft spot for Edinburgh having lived there (should I admit) in the very early seventies in the then, not-so-fashionable Leith - with a flat-full of Glaswegians who knew their Robbie Burns well enough to eat haggis in his honour, and I always loved the Walter Scott Memorial on Princess Street (I worked for a while as a chamber maid at the North British Hotel)... "those were the days my friend"...

If you can't find the muse (a million words) in Edinburgh, you won't find them anywhere else.

Good Luck.

Craig Cliff said...

Hi Maggie, thanks for popping by. Edinburgh is definitely full of muses. Sometimes it's amusement (they take their work drinks seriously here), sometimes bemusement (they city is a constantly changing set of detours, diversions and demolition for the tramworks - - trams will run from Leith to the Airport, eventually), or a mixture of the two (watching the military tattoo in the pouring rain).