A Guest Blog from Dexter Petley. Dexter is the acclaimed author of a number of novels: a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). White Lies was shortlisted for the Dazed & Confused Most Promising Writer award.
This is for you literary novelists. You know who you are; you’re the ones who’ll scoff at the mention and resist everything I’m about to say. I’m with you thus far, believe me. I went through it, the slough of despond and the cri de coeur the literary agents politely thanked you for. But stop and ask yourself this first:
Why is it so many writers leave instructions for their unpublished writings to be burned?
I’ve already burned mine. Once, in unedited limbo, I imagined my collected works, post-mortem, including notebooks and doodles on the phone pad, college essays on Middlemarch, primary school poems, long before I’d even written a burnable novel.
Why is it that most of the literary infantry die in that no-man’s land of rejection slips? Our heart is in the right place, we’ve read ‘em all, copied ‘em all, but it’s still going wrong. We couldn’t have the wrong words, surely. Are they not chipped from the rock face? Are they not the coal dust under our fingernails after a night down the pit? Have we not read our novels aloud in totality to any girl and her dog? And haven’t they all said the same thing: oooh, mmmm, that’s just how it is in real life? And isn’t that when you know you’re a loser?
We’ve come to one of the crucial stations of the writer’s cross here. The crown of thorns you get from friends. The never show your pals rule. Always call in the pros for a crucifiction. This isn’t just a call-up for Writer’s Workshop, who will bear your cross most glady then stand under it till ascension. No, this is the truth about writing literary novels. And I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone.
In 1982, the postman was staggering door-to-door with rejected mss; as usual there was one for me, from a top-hole West End agent. I’d sent them an early cold draft of my second burned novel Invisible Writing. I’d expected invisible reading, not their prompt reply which invited me to some editor’s Friday afternoon soiree for young authors of promise. The letter said phone the office first, so I phoned and they said: we didn’t like your writing at all.
This editor, it turned out, was freelance on a long lease. They let him make the odd mistake. They even let him encourage, from time to time, some uncommercial writing. Writing like mine, they said, repeating their dislike of it, just so I knew. Come Friday 4 o’clock, I rang his melody bell down Sherpherd’s Bush way: ding smoke gets in your eyes dong.
-Oohhh, young man! Come in, hmmm, well, take your hat shall I? Now, sit down in here and listen to me. I’ll give you half an hour. I only read your first chapter so tell me deary, what’s your novawl about then? If I like it I might give you rice pudding next week.
He didn’t look like he could take the skin off a rice pudding if he tried. Hair like a face flannel drying on the side of a bath, shaped like sticks lashed together, baggy grey acrylic trousers he’d knitted himself flapping against poles. Elastic waisteband pulled up to his pigeon tits, his beige sweater tucked inside. Horn rims on a lanyard. Lips of string. Eyes in diluted jelly. All my hours writing, I’d imagined I was doing it for editors in book lined studies wearing bullet proof tweed with big lapels and overflowing ashtrays who treated you as genius deserved. Iron Man, not Ironing Man.
In Ironing Man’s light the outstanding promise ran down my leg. I was surrounded by several thousand swimming trunk-orange, blue and yellow pots, cups, saucers, plates, egg cups, milk jugs, all sat pretty and meticulous on shelves, mounts and plinths. While the kettle boiled, our talent spotter whizzed along the Welsh dresser with a feather duster. He swiped at infinitesimal motes which escaped his pillow-stuffing wrath. Microscopic bastard novel writing motes pursued along the skirting boards and window sills. Then the signal to knock off, a lickle burnt fingered squistle on his kettle which sent ole Magic Slippers to the hand made teabag caddy.
-Now young deary, I’m still all ears; what’s it about, your novawl?
How I loathed Earl Grey tea. I blame that. It put me off the Kafka quote I had all prepared. Talk about bullshit in a china shop:
– Me novawl’s about using words with, uhm, working class words and anomie words and libidinal ones with ethics, like subjective law…well, I can’t fuckin remember can I now, alright?
Magic Slippers sighed and sighed till I shut it. The manuscript was snatched up and squared a page length from two diluted jellies. He’d only read page one when he sniffed and said:
-Young man, is your sweater fresh? Dust irritates me. Irritates me medically, deary. You’d better go outside, take it off and leave it there.
When I came back Magic Slippers was already on chapter 6, leaning back like in a dentist’s chair, face like my novawl was a whining drill shattering his molar. Just crumpled up, a discarded page of a face, waggling those slippers sticking out into the room, the pages shuffling at an alarming rate. I didn’t write page shufflers. My writing shook the world. And looking down on us both was this big square painting of two nude-green boys struggling on a concrete cube inside a butcher’s coldstore. It was signed in black-lustre paint with a 3” brush by Ramone. Magic Slippers put half the manuscript down like he’d got this sheaf of bothersome invoices in Monday’s post. He’d read 107 pages in 5 minutes.
-They didn’t like your novawl you know, young man. The directors, deary. The editors. I think you write beautifully, but what’s it all about? Nothing happens deary. You ought to get out more. In my opinion you need a good fack. Clear your head a good fack will.
More slipper waggling disposed of the remaining 18 chapters in 9 minutes.
-Hmmmm, well young man. Too dense dense dense deary. The average reader reads 1 word in 5.
-Don’t you mean chapters? I said.
-Don’t be s’cheeky! You don’t want to be a silly revolutionary! Listen to me, young man. If you want to be published in your lifetime be like the chaff of wheat in the Byzantine proverb: bend over when the wind blows. There now. Go away and bend over, re-write the first three chapters. And don’t yak on so about your hard life in the working class. That’s all behind you now. Try the light touch. Make our readers chuckle. Tickle me. There now, deary. You’re too young to be bleak. Forget all about your sub-culture. Dr Johnson said the first duty of the novelist is to entertain, and if, thereby, he instructs, so much the better. Now, goodbye. Same time next Friday. You’ll get souflé and peas if I like what I read.
Come Friday, I needed his souflé and peas. I’d re-written day and night and it was ten times more beautiful than before. But Magic Slippers waggled through the new chapters like a dying fish after a bang on the head.
-Oh dreary dreary me.
He was in a right flap.
-What’s it all mean? They won’t pay me for this! You ought to realise this is how I make my living you know, helping young men to write beautifully. I get 70 smackers for a Friday afternoon. You’re a very selfish young man. Very self-indulgent, writing wank. It’s wank-wank-wank. Wankerty-wankerty-wank. You won’t get wank published. Here, take it away. I’ll give your souflay and peas to Gareth. He’s waiting outside with his manuscript about depression. He might not wank as beautifully as you but he wants to get published, with my help. My advice to you young man is STOP IT.
Find out how to stop it, and if I stopped it, in Part 2, on February 1st.