Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Reading, writing, and reflecting
Printing sponsored by:
Fifty things I've learned about the literary life
There's no magic formula for success, and no one person knows best, but for what it's worth…
The Observer, Saturday 17 December 2011
larger | smaller
Jim Carrey in Disney's A Christmas Carol: 'Apart from Dickens, far too cinematic adaptations of novels disappoint.'
From time to time, this column is asked for advice, sometimes obsessively, about decoding the many mysteries of "the world of books". There's a widespread view, held by those looking from the outside, that there must be a philosopher's stone for success in literature, a magic formula that will turn everything to gold. The truth is much closer to Thomas Edison's definition of creativity: "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."
So this is not an advice column. In the celebrated words of the American screenwriter William Goldman, "nobody knows anything". However, in the season of goodwill, here is my list of 50 things I've learned in the byways and saloons of Grub Street.
1. Less is more. Or, "the only art is to omit" (Robert Louis Stevenson).
2. The Man Booker, our premier literary prize, is not "posh bingo" (Julian Barnes), it's a national sporting trophy.
3. Whatever works, works.
4. There are seven basic stories in world literature.
5. Writers who get divorced usually sack their agents.
6. Christopher Marlowe did not write Shakespeare. Nor did Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It's a no-brainer. Just read the First Folio.
7. Poets are either the lions or the termites of the literary jungle.
8. Put a body on page one.
9. Literature is theft.
10. Everyone is writing a book. A few will publish it; but most of them will not be satisfied.
11. This is a golden age of reading.
12. Amazon is not "evil" (J Daunt).
13. The "overnight success" is usually anything but.
14. Apart from Dickens, far too many cinematic adaptations of novels will disappoint.
15. You don't have to read every book you buy, and you certainly don't have to finish the book you've started.
16. When blurb writers describe an author "writing at the peak of their powers", run a mile. When they say the novel is "allegorical", head for the hills. Books that "will change your life" are as fabled as the hippogriff.
17. Narrative (aka storytelling) is in our DNA. It's called gossip.
18. Keep a diary. It might keep you.
19. In writers, vanity is the cardinal sin.
20. Literary fiction is like sci-fi. It's a genre.
21. Writers need love as much as money. They don't need offices because they can write anywhere.
22. A great novel can cost as much as a pencil and a pad of paper – or a whole life.
23. Two writers, alone in a room, will talk about royalties not art.
24. The Orange prize should be called the Kate Mosse prize.
25. The Third Reich has done more for British bookselling than the national curriculum.
26. Hysterical accusations of plagiarism are the last refuge of the literary scoundrel.
27. Words and money go together like bacon and eggs. Words written for nothing are usually what you'd expect: flavourless.
28. PG Wodehouse was not a Nazi, but an artist who got it terribly wrong.
29. American novels usually sell badly in the UK.
30. Most prose writers should be discouraged from reading their work in public. See Somerset Maugham's "Mr Harrington's Washing".
31. Moby-Dick sold fewer than 10,000 copies in Melville's lifetime.
32. A secret is something that is only repeated to one person at a time.
33. The majority of bestsellers are ghosted.
34. Lists are the curse of the age.
35. Radio 4 sells books. Book reviews don't, but they used to.
36. There is no substitute for Harold Pinter.
37. Many published writers are rather less fun than generals, or even bishops.
38. Ebooks are not the end of the world.
39. Small publishers are small for a very good reason.
40. Great booksellers are a bit mad.
41. There are probably just 100 novels you really must read.
42. No one is obliged to like Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.
43. Book parties are for single people, and the only free lunch is at home.
44. Crime and comedy: everyone reads them, but they are rarely taken seriously.
45. Writing can't be taught; better reading can.
46. Everything is fiction.
47. Any new book longer than 500 pages is a stupefying act of self-importance.
48. A proof copy that arrives with a novelty item is usually a dud.
49. Some of the best contemporary writers are working in American television.
50. There are just three rules for writing a good novel. Unfortunately, no one can remember them.
Finally: anything goes.
© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.