The precariousness of twenty-first century writing

I have just found two online publications that recommend books that I think I might like. This feels like a breakthrough.

One is a blog. The other calls itself a magazine. They are both based in the UK. Both do weekly posts.

I am not too sure what the difference is between a blog and an online magazine is. In practice the online magazines tend to have better layout, clearer navigation and more disciplined publication schedules. Even the best of the blogs can have a more chaotic feel, which can be quite appealing.

The blog I have found is called Bookmunch. The magazine is Shiny New Books. In both cases the work they have decided to do is recommending books. Bookmunch does occasional articles. No self-publicising, and no tips on creative writing. That to me is already a relief. Bookmunch feels quite funky. Shiny New Books is respectable. Nobody on either publication gets paid. Shiny New Books say emphatically they don’t review self-published books. Bookmunch don’t say anything in particular.

The books I have found include War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans, American War, by Omar el-Akkad, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I have put them all on Amazon lists.

Except for Sing, Unburied, Sing they are all translated. Ward is an American writer. Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of last year’s National Book Award. As such it may well have had exposure in the mainstream media in this country. I hadn’t heard of it. American War had turned up in my recommendations on Amazon, presumably because I have browsed dystopian fiction. I hadn’t heard of any of the others. All of them have something to do with trauma, which is an interest of mine.

I don’t like contemporary English fiction. I don’t think it’s very good. This selection tends to confirm my view. I am not very impressed by contemporary European or American fiction, either. It’s striking that when I find European and American novels I want to read, I find them on publications that are outside the mainstream.

It is fairly easy to find stuff that was written in the second half of the twentieth century. I am a huge fan of Naguib Mahfouz, and a fan of Lao She and Ma Jian. Notice that this is all translated. It is hard to find good contemporary stuff.

One reason it is hard to find good contemporary fiction is that regular publishing, in this country and probably the United States, isn’t working very well. I don’t think they are capable of finding and publishing genuinely original work. The other reason it is hard is the sheer volume of self-publishing. Most blogs won’t touch self-published fiction. The ones that will review self-published either deal exclusively with genre or charge a fee for reviews. No-one is sifting the bulk that is out there.

I am convinced that if anyone is writing good stuff in this country now – and that’s if, and only if – it is either being self-published, or not published at all. I can’t find it. And as a writer – a writer who is quite confident he is writing good stuff – I can’t find readers.

Until I found Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I was convinced there were a lot of book blogs out there. There are. Most of them are vulgar. They do genre. They are decorated with pictures of flowers and sunsets. Some are pretentious. They are literary and intellectual. Many are not being updated any more. In some cases this is because the owners have gone on to social media. Blogs aren’t fashionable any more. They leave a forwarding address, and mumble about the archive. In other cases the owners have just disappeared. It was obviously too much work.

There are probably 200,000 books being published in the UK by regular publishers every year. Not all of them are novels. Many are. There are probably a couple of hundred thousand self-published books.

I have found two publications to help me sift through them. I don’t know how long their owners will be able to keep up the unpaid work. I don’t know where I will go when they close.

What I really need is to find other writers who are doing similar stuff and have similar values. I need to feel I am not alone. With the help of Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I may be able to find regularly-published writers I feel an affinity with. That will be something.

I don’t know how I’m going to find the self-published writers I like. And I don’t know how I will find readers.

I have sent Bookmunch a copy of The City that Walked Away. I don’t know what they will do.

I have emailed Shiny New Books. I have suggested they need a procedure for making exceptions.

I don’t expect a reply.

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Marginalised as a writer

I feel marginalised as a writer.

I am marginalised to a large extent by personality. I am solitary and I am fastidious.

I hate the very idea of creative writing classes.

I think the classes which teach technique are teaching conventionality. And I hate the idea of workshops. Novels aren’t written by teams. They’re written by individuals, in solitude.

I hate the identification of writing with education.

I hate writers’ groups. I think the stuff they read is banal and the people are boring.

I hate the idea of criticism and feedback. I hate the identification of writing with learning.

I don’t like online forums. I don’t see why people need to look for motivation. If you want to do it, do it. If you don’t, don’t bother.

I am not motivated by money. I am uneasy about the notion of professional writing.

Words like creativity and originality have been devalued. It is difficult to say objectively that something is a good book or good writing.

There are so many writers. There are so many opportunities to talk.

It is so hard to find anyone worth talking to.

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Writing in retirement

A self-published writer enjoying his retirement in idyllic surroundings

Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.

I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.

I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.

Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.

After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.

I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.

I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I  wanted either to finish it, or stop.

I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.

I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.

I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.

I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’

I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.

I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.

The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.

I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.

Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.

I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.

I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.

I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.

I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.

I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.

That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.

In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.

Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.

I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.

I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.

Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.

There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.

In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.

That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.

I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.

I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.

I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.

I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.

I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.

When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.

Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.

It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.

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