I’ve been neglecting my blog a bit. It’s been very busy time for me as the CWA membership secretary. Subscriptions were due on 1st January and we have around 500 members so that’s an awful lot of renewal forms and cheques. (And by the way, if you’re a crime writer and you’re not a member, why not? You’re missing out on a lot of fun). To make matters more complicated, this year we have introduced online payment, so I am operating two systems, a paper one and an electronic one, which has made for a challenging first year in the job.
There has still been time for reading, of course. I’ve enjoyed the latest Camilleri, THE TRACK OF THE SAND. Reading this and also reflecting on FREEDOM, the Jonathan Franzen novel, it strikes me that reticence is a an important quality in a writer and that there is enormous skill in knowing how to give the reader exactly the right amount and no more. It’s a common fault in new writers that they try to tell you everything. But it’s a courtesy to the reader to assume that they don’t need to have everything spelt out. There’s a good example in FREEDOM when disaster overtakes one of the characters – I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it – and Franzen doesn’t describe how she felt or what thoughts went through her head; we imagine that for ourselves and the scene is all the stronger for it. Similarly when Inspector Montalbana has a ill-judged sexual encounter, we don’t need a blow-by-blow account, but Camilleri tells us enough for us to understand the Inspector’s discomfort later.
So: enough and no more. Sound easy, perhaps, but it is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer.
Among my presents this year was Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM, which I’d very much looking forward to reading. The big question has been, could he come up with something as good as THE CORRECTIONS? I thought that was the very best contemporary novel that I had read for a long time, exhilerating good in the way that Dickens is good and naturally I was hoping for more when I opend the new one just before Christmas. At first I was a bit disappointed. I wasn’t immediately caught by it and I think this had something to do with the character whose narrative we first follow, a basketball player who goes to University on a sports scholarship. Maybe it brought back the misery of basketball in my own school days and being among the last to be picked for the teams! But it was also to do with not understanding the American sports jargon and with the personality of Patty which I didn’t much like. However I pressed on and got over that.
It’s good, it’s very, very good, though my personal preference is still for THE CORRECTIONS. FREEDOM is a state-of- American novel and Franzen touches on some huge themes, but at the heart of it is a portrait of a marriage and this is where he really excels. It struck me as I was reading, how brilliantly Franzen writes about sex, a notorious difficult area. He’s explicit, but never pornographic. He doesn’t make the mistake of going into a lot of physical detail, instead he really gets into his characters’ heads.
When I’d finished it, I felt at a loss. I knew I wouldn’t want to read anything else for a while. It was as if I had eaten a long meal with many courses. I needed to think about the novel, digest it, go back and re-read parts of it. And ultimately it is pretty pointless comparing it to THE CORRECTIONS. It’s a different novel, it’s another great novel, and I am sure that it will last.
My friend, Martin Edwards, has an entertaining blog with the splendid title ‘Do you write under your own name?’ I have been asked this too at parties, usually in a hopeful tone after the speaker has ascertained that they have never heard of me or my novels. I never hold that against them. I don’t EXPECT them to have heard of me. On the rare occasion when they have – the last time was a Society of Authors meeting – I am thrilled. The next question is often, ‘Have you always wanted to write?’ I usually say no, and explain how I came to start writing fiction. Bur really the answer should probably be yes, because I have always written: stories at primary school, essays and dissertations at school and university, a Ph.D thesis, academic books and articles. I just haven’t always written fiction or even wanted to write fiction. In part I think this has something to do with having studied English. I knew that I was never going to write like Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Jane Austen, so why bother? I didn’t know that there is a lot to be gained from the writing life, even if you’re never going to reach the heights or learn a lot of money. And I didn’t know that two things will carry you a long way as a writer: a willingness to learn the craft and a willingness to stick with it for the long haul.
And what about talent, I hear you say. Well, yes, but then again some people have the skill of making a small talent go a very long way, others may have a larger share, but it means nothing if they haven’t got self-discipline to go with it.
But, of course, there are simply writers of pure genius, like the ones I’ve already mentioned. In my view one of the foremost today, if not the foremost, is Jonathan Franzen and I am looking forward to reading his new novel, FREEDOM. The review sections of the papers are full of articles and interviews. Blake Morrison in the Guardian writes about the almost monastic life Franzen leads as a writer, no children, doesn’t go on holiday, locks himself away in a cell-like room. For most of us this trade-off wouldn’t be worthwhile. But someone with Franzen’s huge talent has almost a duty to nurture it and I am glad that he does.