I’ve attended many author events and have been lucky to hear/meet some of the big name novelists who’ve inspired me: Alan Hollinghurst, Linda Grant, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson. There’s a new addition to that list: Lionel Shriver, who read at an intimate salon at the Society Club on Saturday. I’ve never written up an author event and didn’t plan to, but I can’t get it out of my head and I wanted to share what I gained from it – not from notes, just from memory.
Even before the salon it had been a pretty remarkable day. I attended the first Word Factory Short Story Masterclass, also in the Society Club, a lovely quirky independent cafe, bookshop and event space in Soho run by New York publisher turned London agent Carrie Kania. Word Factory is the latest brainchild of former Sunday Times deputy editor Cathy Galvin who founded the Sunday Times Short Story Prize. In addition to hosting the monthly salons, the aim is to deliver top class writing events with a special focus on encouraging emerging writers. (We need that.)
The morning session was led by prolific author and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at UEA Michèle Roberts; she broke the ice and got the juices flowing exceptionally quickly. When I left home I wasn’t expecting to write a sex scene between two men, but neither did I expect to reverse-edit (re-write badly) the opening line of Lolita, which I did in the afternoon session with short story supremo Adam Marek. There was a fun, friendly atmosphere and wow, was there some talent in that room! The pieces others read out were confident, original and one made me weep with laughter. The kind of day you don’t think can get much better.
After a walk to clear our heads, my friend and I returned to the venue to find it was standing room only, which is hardly surprising – it’s rare for such a famous author to perform for (guessing) 60 people. Lionel Shriver achieved that prominence with We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003, winner of the Orange Prize 2005) but I’m staggered to discover that was the eighth of her 11 novels. On Saturday she read from her forthcoming Big Brother (Harper Collins, 9 May) dedicated to and inspired by the death of her older brother from obesity-related complications. Narrator Pandora fails to recognise her brother after four years in which his weight has ballooned, and when his visit to her family drags on, she is forced to choose between him and her husband and step-children. In the extract Lionel read, Pandora reflects on her dislike of seeing herself in photographs:
I don’t know if this heightened concern for size was done to me or is something I have done to myself. What I do know: (1) I am not the only one who appraises their photographs with exactly the same eye; (2) the folks who also “weigh up” pictures of themselves are not all women.
Given that most people presumably contend with just this rattling disconnect between who they are to themselves and what they are to others, it’s perplexing why we’re still roundly obsessed with appearance.
Although I haven’t yet read my copy, I’m certain that what I heard that night will be true of the whole: that it’ll be genuinely thought-provoking, serious but not lacking in humour of the wry and witty kind evident in the author’s reading. (NOTE: Since writing this, I have read the novel and it had all these qualities and more). I bet everyone in the room felt Lionel Shriver was looking right at them when her eyes lifted from the page.
In a lively conversation with Cathy Galvin and the audience, LS told us that the main problem writing Big Brother wasn’t her emotional proximity to the subject but finding a fresh approach to obesity, which has been done to death by the media, healthcare industry and even politicians. Also, the reality of serious dieting is intrinsically dull, an obsession with what you’re not doing and not eating. Not, on the face of it, the most promising fictional terrain, but if there’s one author who doesn’t shy away from difficult and controversial material, it’s this one.
Questions from the audience led to a fascinating discussion. LS was asked if she felt the book could only have been written by a woman, to which her answer was a resounding No; any subject can be tackled by a man or woman, and it’s been proven that each gender is capable of successfully writing as the other. This inevitably led to gender issues in the literary world, which as LS said, seems intent on reinforcing barriers which have largely disappeared in other professions. My perception is that she is taken more seriously than many other women writers, but she subscribes to the widely-held view that female novelists are not granted the respect and exposure given to their male counterparts. The term Great American Novelist contains an assumption of maleness and has never been applied to a woman. LS told us she no longer gives interviews in her home because journalists comment on her décor, and that just wouldn’t happen to Philip Roth.
Lionel Shriver’s answer to another question resonated very strongly with me and is one of the things I wanted to pass on to emerging writers reading this (even if we should all know it already). A new writer told of her manuscript being rejected by an agent who, whilst praising it, told her to visit bookshops, see what sells and try to write something like that. LS replied that was the worst piece of advice she’d ever heard (agents usually say the opposite, because trends move on too quickly). She spoke with generosity and frankness about the difficulties of her own early career which at one point was threatened by low sales – worse, we were told, than having no previous track record. Published authors can’t take it for granted that they will continue to be published. It takes a huge amount of energy, commitment and time to write a novel with little or no guarantee of a favourable outcome. LS’s advice is to write what matters to you, say what you have to say, because that’s the only way you can guarantee your time was well spent, no matter what happens. She also said something I’ve never heard before, that you ‘can’t keep trying indefinitely’ [to be published]…. Maybe nobody else dares say it.
After the break, Lionel Shriver read her short story Prepositions. She doesn’t often write short fiction and even disapproves of the subject of 9/11 in fiction, considering it something of a cliché, but she was asked to write the story for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. It takes the form of a letter to someone who was once a close friend:
Your husband died in 9/11. My husband died on 9/11. So much has ensued from those words, a single one-letter variation in the alphabet.
Ten years on, Rachel contrasts her loss with Sarah’s, noting the difference that tiny letter has made. The story is terribly poignant, bitterly and at times uncomfortably frank.
There’s an unflinching honesty and integrity to Lionel Shriver’s writing that I now see comes directly from who she is. It would be disingenuous not to admit that I didn’t expect such warmth with it. When she signed my copy of the novel and we spoke for a moment, I thanked her for what she said. I won’t forget it.
Have you been inspired by meeting an author in person? Who would you most like to meet?
How fascinating Isabel. I am a huge fan of Lionel Shriver and her writing and already have Big Brother on advance order. As you say, she has an unflinching honesty and integrity that she applies to some common taboos; her new book, on obesity, is clearly no exception to that. I am also struck by the same honesty applied to publishing – exactly when does a writer decide that enough is enough, and give up on their novel? And how very unnerving to read that other truth said out loud: if your first novel doesn’t sell well, it may be the last you publish….. Too much truth can be hard to take!
You’re right, those things are hard to take on board and hard for most people to say too. I think Lionel Shriver was really making a very affirmative point about writing having a value that isn’t necessarily linked to publication. It can bring a lot of meaning and satisfaction (that’s all I have to show so far!) even if it doesn’t make it ‘out there’. Hence her point about writing what you care about; back to self-expression and integrity, I guess. Thanks for your comment and enjoy the novel.
It sounds like she spoke a lot of hard to hear sense, so you may help me to change my view of her – I so disliked Kevin that I abandoned it.
You’re certainly not alone on that, Rowena. It was a very hard book to read and I haven’t read any of her others but am looking forward to the new one.
Fascinating post, Isabel. The thing I found most compelling about Lionel Shriver’s reading was the clarity of her prose. Every sentence had focus, not one word seemed irrelevant. The concentration in that room was tangible, don’t you think?
Hi lovely to meet you on Saturday and I agree re LS’s writing. Literary and clever, but not at all pretentious or convoluted. Her reading was really absorbing, one of the very best I’ve attended.
I saw AS Byatt speak a few weeks ago and she talked about how she “doesn’t do lunch.” She expanded to explain how, for example, if you do lunch w/ a publicist (or whoever) on a Wednesday, that day’s writing is totally disrupted plus Tuesday and Thursday’s writing will not speak to each other as well. So if she has to meet with someone she will always arrange for an evening meal.
Kerry Hudson and a couple of other authors were nodding furiously in the audience and I realised that I probably had been forfeiting quality writing time for all these events & commitments (on & offline) that I was doing to try and make a platform for myself. But all those things are pointless if they stop you writing, or stop you writing well.
So yes, that changed the way I do things greatly, and I’ll never forget that.
Very good points. It’s all a distraction and ultimately pointless if it detracts from the standard of our writing. Luckily most of the events I attend are in the evening when I’ve clocked off, and I can’t write all the time anyway or I’d go mad so if I’m going into town during the day, I just accept it’s not a writing day. I reckon it’s more of a problem for published authors once their book comes out and they have no choice – that can make the second book extra hard to write.
Another really thought provoking post. I like her confident observation about writing from the perspective of the opposite gender — I’m writing a novel which includes a female POV and I think that’s something that many male writers are quite anxious about getting ‘correct’ — perhaps through getting feedback along the lines of ‘no woman would say/think that’ (how does anyone know what half the population thinks/does?). Women writers generally seem to write convincing male POVs — if they’re good writers overall. I’m sure it can be the same with men.
I’ve heard that it’s easier to get a first novel published than a second or third because a debut author has the novelty factor and is eligible for prizes. Publishers think the odds are somewhat better and there isn’t that quantitative data about sales that can be analysed. And the point about getting to a point where it’s no longer worth trying to get published is probably the biggest taboo of the lot. I’ve often wondered whether agents/publishers will give equal consideration to a MS by an author they’ve previously rejected. Also, when someone gives the advice to keep persevering, it’s very difficult to disprove. Someone will rationalise that they haven’t had success because they haven’t persevered enough — when it could be the truth that no amount of perseverance will enable them to reach their goal.
It’s useful to hear her more negative (realistic?) observations — no wonder you were moved to write a blog post you didn’t anticipate.
Yet more good points from you but I’ll concentrate on the final one because it gets so little airtime. I’ve often privately thought about that: if, as we are constantly told, 95% of submissions to agents are not and never will be of publishable standard, the logical conclusion would be that most people are in fact wasting their time continuing to attempt to be published IF that is their primary objective in writing (and hopefully it isn’t). We hear a lot of lovely stories of perseverance but by definition these are from those who persisted and made it in the end where most writers won’t. I still need and enjoy those stories and to believe I might be telling them one day, even though I would still write if in the 95% camp (which hopefully I’m not!)
I’m not sure about these statistics. Agents tend to say that about 90% of what they receive is either of manifestly unpublishable quality or is the wrong type of genre and so on. They then say that they’re interested in something in the tenths of one per cent of what they receive (depending on the agent). But if your work is of publishable quality and it’s been sent to a receptive agent then you should have ten times the success rate of the average person — so possibly between 1 in 20 or 1 in 30, perhaps. If you then send your MS to 30 agents then you’d think that you’d have a good chance of being taken on by one. That’s the perseverance argument — keep on going until you find that person who will love your book.
In reality, agents will all probably have their own view of what will sell in the market (the sort of thing they refuse to be drawn on when at a writers’ group meeting someone asks ‘Tell me what you want me to write so I won’t waste my time on something that won’t sell’. I also read in Betsy Lerner’s entertaining book ‘The Forest for the Trees’ that the type of book she most often rejects is competently written but generally dull and unoriginal. Coming up with your unique idea isn’t something that is ever taught on writing courses (as it’s probably impossible) but more emphasis should be placed on validating the premise from which you start to write a novel. There’s no point spending years on honing wonderful prose on an underlying idea that isn’t very engaging. Perhaps this is also behind what Lionel Shriver was saying?
The idea of writing what’s important to you rather than anything else hit home with me earlier this week when I heard the sad news that the chairman of my poetry writing group had died. He was quite a widely published poet but he used to bring along poems he’d recently written to the meetings that were written for personal reasons and shared these with the group. Now he’s passed on, it’s surprising how having examples of his poetry seems to me to give a way for his voice to live on — and I’m sure his poetry will be of some comfort to his family and close friends. It’s probably easier to achieve this through poetry, which is more intimately shared, than with a big novel but it’s made me realise the value of the expression of writing for its own sake.
Great post, Isabel. You’ve summed up the event brilliantly. It felt like a privilege to hear such unvarnished opinions – generously given. ‘Write the book only you can write’ has definitely stayed with me. The other message I took from the day was Adam Marek’s advice to train yourself to write, at the same time if possible, every day – even if for only half an hour. It sounds simple but I know it works! And I completely agree with Cariad – disruption is fatal… I remember hearing Hilary Mantel say that the best kind of writing life is a very quiet one, as all the activity should be in your head [I paraphrase!] – advice I try to follow, not always successfully…
I think we were very lucky to be there at that event. Previously when I’ve heard big authors speak it’s been at King’s Place or the Southbank and this made me realise what a difference the size of the event makes to the sense of connection you get with the author (not that the others were anything less than wonderful). I’m slightly on the fence re the distraction thing: real life is a big distraction from writing for me, but it’s also the reason I have anything to say. And the hermit/quiet existence must be bliss if you’re a certain personality type – I enjoyed it on my week long retreat because it was a novelty – but that would drive me crazy on a day to day basis. I also think it’s possible to be too precious about it (note: I am not suggesting that of anyone who’s commented here!)
Great post as ever, and good insights from Shriver on the writer/reader/protagonist gender problem. Not a problem for writers, only for the publishing houses’ marketing departments.
Hi Fiona, thanks for your comment. I’m very interested to hear you don’t think the gender issue is a problem for writers. I get the distinct impression it is – let us discuss next time we meet (soon! Hurray!)
I thought Lionel Shriver had a particular problem getting Kevin published in that her current agent at the time rejected it, which turned out to be quite telling given that it was her “breakthrough” novel and, in my opinion, her best. Another of hers I’d strongly recommend to writers is The Post-Birthday World: it’s about a woman at a decision point, but showing both choices through alternate chapters. A good read in itself but just so interesting for the transparency (and not at all in a way that detracts from the pleasure of the reading, or not any more so than we were discussing in the previous post) of the writer’s plotting decisions, which is something we can see for ourselves if we’ve ever done several drafts of a novel: the restaurant scene that has a particular function in draft one might have the same props and menu in draft three but with a totally different nuance.
Thanks. I must check out that book – I’ve heard such conflicting repoerts about it. But first I’ll read Big Brother as I have a signed copy! I really like her kick-ass attitude. There’s so much hot air in this business.
Great post Isabel, thank you. I thought LS was awe-inspiring. It’s not often I am reduced to gibbering fan-dom, but I was on Saturday. She lived up to all my expectations of her.
I really enjoyed the course too and maybe see you at another event.
Good luck with the manuscript, too!
Hi Hannah Hope to bump into you again soon. It seems Lionel has a habit of reducing (or should that be ‘raising’?) people to devoted fandom. Thanks for commenting and happy you recognised the day in my post!