There was an enormous hoo-ha in the literary press last year when Philip Roth, widely considered one of America’s greatest 20th-century novelists, announced in an interview that, at the grand old age of 78, he didn’t read fiction any more. When asked why by the inteviewer, he simply replied ‘I wised up’. And then, back in November, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams wondered whether it was irresponsible to read novels in times of crisis, and whether we shouldn’t all read serious nonfiction instead. Williams says:
‘It’s something that they say a lot in publishing, apparently, that once you turn 40, you start reading biographies. I do remember in my 20s, someone nearing 40 saying, “When a novel says, ‘So-and-so walked into the room,’ I have this voice in my head shouting ‘So? They’re not real! The room isn’t real!’” I thought, what an incredibly weird, sad, unexpected, unattractive side of ageing, like getting cellulite on your nose. Sure enough, though, I’ve found my appetite for fiction has fallen off a cliff.’
And indeed, this seems to be a common enough phenomenon; I’ve grappled with it myself. Though I think that for me part of the disillusionment with fiction is a function of the desperately dull novels that are published – or indeed written – today. Contemporary fiction mostly bores the pants off me. This is appallingly evident to me whenever I go back to a lifechanging novel that I read in my teens or even in my twenties or, very rarely, a little later. Because the older I get, the rarer it gets that I find a new writer who makes that kind of impact on me (the last of them was probably Cormac McCarthy, whose novels were in good part responsible for my wanting to pack up and move to the Outer Hebrides exactly two years ago. Peculiar as that might sound … it’s a long story!) I want to know where the DH Lawrences, the Doris Lessings, the Cormac McCarthies, the Janette Turner Hospitals, the Margaret Atwoods have gone. As a publisher I found it so depressing to receive more and more fiction manuscripts every day - wave after wave of unending manuscripts – that told me nothing new or even particularly interesting about the world, that for a long while we stopped taking fiction submissions altogether.
But where it gets really complicated is when you’re trying to write a novel and you decide you’ve lost faith in fiction. My second novel, The Bee Dancer, was begun what seems like an age ago now. Close to three years ago, to be precise. I started off with the best of intentions, knowing exactly what I had to say and why I was writing a novel to say it. Then, about half way in, we had a joint brainstorm, dismantled our lives (again) and moved here to the Outer Hebrides. A perfect move in all kinds of ways, and it has brought all the things we wanted from it and a few more unexpected joys besides. But there’s no way that the kind of writer I am (must have every pencil in my study thoroughly sharpened, every speck of dust on the floor vacuumed up, every object in the house in its place before I can even begin to contemplate sitting down to write) can combine the kind of chaos that came from a 12-month-long total upheaval process with writing a novel. It’s simply not possible. And so it was necessary to get the house renovated so that it was livable, and the croft vaguely functional, before I could even contemplate finding the time to sit down and finish the novel off.
And that’s where it starts to get even more complicated. Three years at certain stages in a life can be, if you’ll forgive me stating the obvious, a very long time. And so, when I took out my manuscript again three years down the line, I found that my entire world view had changed. What I’d already written needed to be rewritten; what I had yet to write needed to be reconceived. And in the meantime, I’d lost my taste for fiction and developed a major new exciting project (EarthLines magazine) that I wanted to work on very much more.
So began a three-month-long struggle to decide what I’m going to do – whether I even CAN do what I set out originally to do, only better now. And yet … there is clearly something in me that believes in what the novel had to say when I first conceived of it, and believes that I can make the case for it even more clearly now. That still believes it is possible for a novel to transform our view of the world, maybe even to show us a whole new way of being. That isn’t necessarily certain that I have the skill to do all of those things, but that nevertheless feels it important to try. And so, after three separate efforts to put the damn thing in the dustbin and get on with having a life, I have finally come to the conclusion that I can’t. What I can do, though, is stop imposing ridiculous deadlines on myself. When your own publishing house publishes your own work, that’s something that ought to be under your own control. And so I’ve taken the book (originally due to be out in October of this year) off the Two Ravens Press website altogether. It will be finished when it’s finished, and I’ll publish it when I know I’ve said all the things I needed to say, in all the right ways, to the best of my ability to do it. Whether it’s October this year, or next year, I can’t say for sure right now. All I can say for sure is that I can’t seem to write off fiction after all.