This is not about a Book. (C’est ci ne pas une pomme.)
The head of steam burbling below the surface suggests an essay coming on. I always take ‘essay’ seriously. It contains built-in respectable failure. A what-the-hell invitation to let loose. The shrug will follow. Ah well is implied.
If I were less self-controlled this might be a book review, but it’s not. I have enough solidarity with a fellow writer not to want to pull any kind of bell or dead-drop rope. Besides like marrying the wrong person half the fault is your own; your expectations chose the book, your disappointment was also yours. So this is not a shout at a book, but wider than that. It’s a shout at the world of publishers, and those agents and sales reps with manicures and glossy lists who have a product willy-nilly, ready for the Christmas market with time for the reviews first.
Will there even be Christmas this year?
I have just read, skimmed, galloped through a book and it enraged me. I rarely do any of those; books have an authority I am loathe to challenge. There is always hope that redemption lies on the next line, or the next page. Not this one; I read it all but at speed.
I am used to being disappointed by books I order on impulse. This was not bought on impulse, but pre-ordered on the basis of what it promised because I am not so much in the throes of writing a memoir, but beached like a whitened cuttlefish above the salt tide of a perplexed repetitive rolling breaker life.This book would help get me re-floated. It was (ostensibly) about the difficulties of writing about family, with matters of confidentiality arising; it was about the perilous knife-edge between fact and fiction; it was about how a competent and much respected author/teacher was coerced to solve the problems, of keeping things fresh, and being creative and stimulated. All Laocoon problems being wrestled with chez nous.
In a way it did address all of those things, and solved none of them. Instead it explored, analytically the nature of the dilemmas in ‘finding a story’ and then finding ways to tell it engagingly. She never did find a story. She wrote a book about not finding a story.
‘Where’s the story’ dominated about twenty five percent of my valuable time, ‘Look into your family’ dominated the next twenty five percent. And looking for, not looking at, continued.
The members of her illustrious family were leafed through as by a finger in a card index, singly, with much lingering on the reasons for being renowned, before she moved on to the next. A five star family tree hung out to sparkle. So well documented were these estimable generations, she could find no space for herself. She could not add much to esteem, nor supply salacious details or invent a caprice. They were all rock solid in reputation. Or someone else had got there first. But half of a three hundred page book was devoted to this index. I can get the Yellow Pages for nothing and nobody expects me to read it.
I have been having similar problems with George Eliot who threads her running stitches through my book, and half of me thought I should uncover facts about her. Nine volumes of letters and seven biographies later I know less about her than I did. She walked speedily away because my George Eliot was not the same as other people’s. Facts added almost nothing. Or worse. Facts boxed in a Boadicea writer and placed her in carefully contrived ‘at homes’ with other notable visitors, all of whose names you recognised. They shone; reflected by being invited to tea. Same here. That was what I hoped this author would illuminate; how to relegate the biographical and make wild with conjecture; how to render conjecture truer than fact.
It often is.
Her despairing solution ( we are now sixty percent through) was to invent a fictional character that would thread through lives in their trivial and unexplored silences, the interstices that would admit a nanny, a governess or a secretary who might find herself interestingly compromised, abandoned, orphaned. I cannot remember what happened to her, this non-existent member of a family to which the author belongs. This fictional character never rose off the page, never spoke out loud because her function was simply to act as a needle and thread to replace the finger and sift through another generation of the estimable family, whose peppered names got shorter, but whose identities were even less interesting than the Wikipedia-like entries of the first half.
These smaller younger leaves on the family tree fluttered briefly without offering the slightest reason to notice them. Except their fast galloping names on the heels of one another. What their brief hooks permitted were extracts from the author’s other books and not very well obscured references to the hell of earning a living as a writer, and the depths to which one has to sink (Open University might or might not, this year? The exhaustion of coaching! Oh not another talk for another lit fest!) to make ends meet.
We already know all that. Some of us lack the agent who says ‘Find a Story, anything will do, and mention as many important family names as you can. I need this year’s offering and your name will sell anything.
Now I understand the deadening effect of fact when you have wings to fly creatively. I had been taking maiden flights of fancy with the facts of my life for three years. I hoped this book would offer ‘lift-off’. I understand that restraint may be necessary with other people’s (in my case offspring’s) feelings, but how to stay true? I hoped for suggestions of stratagems. How much fictional recreation is legitimate? How much is taboo? The thin line between imaginative re-creation and distortion? How to tell? How to curb? Is truth merely your impressions or does it need ‘sources’ because sources add nothing to emotional veracity on the day (however riveting the facts on another day, or for another kind of reader). Wrong facts can tell a better story, if they were indeed true for you.
All these answers were implied by the banner over this book of a ‘writer’s travel through her family’. Instead it was a lot of ‘woe is me’, how curtailed I am by the importance of my family. I can hardly breathe! Where is there place for me?
The answer came. No doubt with an advance for the attics and cellars of ‘not there, not here’. And ‘this’ll do fine’. It has enough words, doesn’t matter what they are about. Available for pre-order, to which I appended my contribution. The book signings and speech making will follow.
This book, which shall remain nameless, is a lens to light the fire of indignation to a roaring blaze. For those of us who have too many stories to tell, without enough life left to tell them, without the agent to promote them, without the pedigree to make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, are dealt a final body blow with the current hype of this cynical exercise in self-promotion. It is not a novel, not a memoir, not a non-fiction trawl through illustrious forebears, but a non- book. It is a catalogue of harrowing self-congratulation for being too well connected. Very well written.
A bit like trawling through recipes under consideration by Marco Pierre White but never cooked.
Still hungry for answers.