I have moved the whole blog to a new address. Please join me over there as no new posts are being added here and I have removed key info from this old version ...


When you get there, PLEASE rejoin as a "follower" - changing addresses means I lose my 230 lovely friends!

NB also - all comments are intact on the new version.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Indulge in a happy imagining: a publisher has just offered you your first contract. Hooray! Break open the sparkly stuff and send me chocolate for my invaluable advice.

And then, before you drift off into permanent cloud-nine-land, tell me something: are you ready for it? Specifically, are you ready for the fact that whatever type of writing you do, you will have to defend it. If you write literary fiction, you'll have to put up with a) not selling enough books to buy the jam for your bread and b) people turning up their noses at your pretentiosity. If, on the other hand, you are such a crawling low-brow that you write - God forbid, perish the thought, OMG etc etc - crime fiction .... then be prepared to be well and truly looked down on.

(And let's not even think about what you'll have to deal with if you write chick-lit or - pause to draw three deep breaths - kids' books. The sound of a deflating ego will become familiar to you rather quickly.)

Don't believe me? Well, John Banville is a man who knows. Not only is he, obviously, John Banville, Booker-prize-winning (and therefore erudite and literary ...) author, but he is also, under the name Benjamin Black, a hugely successful crime writer. And he has just put his size elevens in it at the Harrogate Crime Festival. Not a place you'd want to cause a stushie, not with all those crime writers around: scary people who delight in doing very nasty things to others and having their bodies turn up in disgusting states of decay.

You'll need to read the article before you read on here. See, I've got a bit of an issue with the message. Not that I'm one of those silly people who think everything is equal and all must win prizes and that Katie Price deserves to win a literary prize as much as JB.

My issue is this: all he said was that it took less time to write the required words of a crime novel. Is that the same as saying there's less skill? (Isn't he actually phenomenally extra skilful because he can do both?) Is someone who can make intricate sugar decorations for a wedding cake, which takes hours and hours, a better and more skilful cook than someone who can conjure gorgeous flavours from a few perfectly-prepped, inspirationally-seasoned and cleverly-combined ingredients to produce a mouth-watering meal in minutes?

Is how long you take over something the mark of its brilliance? Was Leonardo Da V a better artist than Picasso because he took longer and angsted more about the detail? Or the perfectionist Mozart a better player than the best improvising jazz pianist? Was Flaubert's agonised paragraph better than one that he managed to write in substantially less than a week? Or was he possibly just a tad precious and maybe needed to practise a bit more to get quicker ... (You can picture Mrs Flaubert. "Hurry up Gus, your tea's getting cold. Are you still on that same sentence? Never mind, dear: you'll get the hang of it soon enough.")

Instead of measuring writing skill in how slowly the individual writer chooses the words, should we not measure it in how well he achieves his aim, how perfectly he inspires and delights his intended readers? Whoever those readers may be? Otherwise, don't we have a somewhat absurd situation whereby more respect is accorded to the literary writer who takes ten years than the one who took only seven?

Yes, by some measurements, literary fiction is cleverer; but by other measurements - for example how well it taps into the human love of story - crime is cleverer. As for how well it pays the bills ... **Reginald Hill's wife gives the right answer there.

(**BuffyS - I am quite sick of how clever you are and how much better your reading skills are than mine. And no, sqrl, I'm still not paying you? OK? I do not give money to sqrls, however well they can read.)

Anyway, please stop worrying whether your chosen genre is high-brow or low-brow - just worry about how well you can do it.