A Sublime Sleight of Hand (or Why I Love The Comforters)

UNKNOWN WRITER: It is almost sixty years since the publication of Muriel Spark’s debut novel The Comforters (1957) and for me, it remains one of the finest metafictional novels of all time – all because of one simple, almost casual, feat of literary genius.

SCEPTICAL READER (yawning): Not the G-word again.

UW: Yes, the G-word again. Have you read the book?

SR: Maybe.

UW: Well, just in case, The Comforters tells the story of Caroline who has the apparent delusion that she is hearing her thoughts and actions being typed on an unseen typewriter by an entity she comes to call the Typing Ghost. After some resistance Caroline accepts her status as a fictional character but calls into question the competence of her author. She decides to take control of her own destiny by making notes of the narrative she overhears in order to write her story herself.

SR: So what? I’ve seen that conceit lots of times: an author’s intention to write a novel that is obviously fictional because the art of telling a story that they seek is exactly that – to tell a story and to be seen to be telling a story. End of.

UW: True, but look what Spark does (and barely breaks sweat as she does so): she… hang on, I’m going to have to shout… SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO MENTION THE END OF THE NOVEL. I RECOMMEND YOU READ IT YOURSELF AND THEN REJOIN THIS POST.

SR: That was loud.

UW: Sorry. Anyway, what Spark does is this: she takes her fictional protagonist, Caroline, out of the novel and makes her the author of the book that we, the readers, hold in our hands.

SR: What do you mean?

UW: You have to bear in mind that The Comforters is written in the past tense, so all that happens has happened, even though it is an unfolding story for the characters.

SR: This is going to get complicated, isn’t it?

UW: Yes. So, as I said, Caroline can hear the words of the omniscient narrator. Her boyfriend, Laurence Manders, discovers the notes she’s been taking and writes to her saying that he resents the prospect of being a character in her novel.

SR: I don’t blame him.

UW: Me neither, but you see, we, the readers, see the words he writes but he destroys his letter before Caroline can see it.

SR: Right…

UW: And the novels ends (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN): “and he did not then foresee his later wonder, with a curious rejoicing, how the letter had got into the book” (The Comforters 188).

SR: I see…

UW: One sentence of sublime genius. A fabulous literary sleight of hand.

SR: I don’t get it.

UW: The implication is that Manders later reads a book that Caroline has written in which his letter appears even though he destroyed it before she could read it. That book is The Comforters. Caroline is a paradox. She is both a character in, and the author of, the unfolding events in The Comforters. She is the Typing Ghost that she can hear, and she is the author of the narrative that we are reading.

SR: Uhhh…

UW: To quote: “She was aware that the book in which she was involved was still in progress … and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it” (The Comforters 165-166). How good is that? That’s why I love The Comforters.

SR: Ah.

Metamorphosis: Bean Bags, Flann O’Brien & Getting It Out There

A year has passed since I submitted the first 25,000 words of my novel as part of a creative writing MSt. Since then I have written, re-written, abandoned, restructured and despaired of, the remaining 60,000 words. Writing a novel takes time. Writing a novel is like grappling with a 100-foot long bean bag.

But I’m almost there and like many unknown writers who sense the final full-stop, I’ve started to think about how I’m going to ‘get it out there’.

Despite blogging in praise of literary agents I’ve found myself toying with the phrase ‘self-publishing’, and peering with an almost guilty fascination at the success of Nick Spalding, Hugh Howie, Amanda Hocking et al. Self-publishing seems to be so empowering; so liberating; and, I believe, sometimes so necessary.

Take Flann O’Brien, for instance.

This great writer has been on my mind a lot lately. Not least because there is an International Flann O’Brien Society and I’m presenting a paper at their annual conference in Prague, and his debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), is one of my primary sources. It’s a wonderful story: clever, satirical, exuberant, metafictional and very, very funny. Graham Greene liked it, so did Dylan Thomas and so did James Joyce.

I like his second novel, The Third Policeman, even more. In fact, I think it’s perfect. But when he submitted it to his publisher in 1940 it was rejected. O’Brien took this badly and told everyone he had lost the manuscript. But the story goes that really he placed it on his sideboard and then ignored it every day for the next 26 years. It was published posthumously and so he never saw it reviewed and lauded as a masterpiece.

I wonder how much impact that rejection had on his later writing, and whether as a result, other masterpieces were never written. That furrows my brow so much that I’ve taken to imagining Flann O’Brien receiving the rejection and logging on to the internet shouting, ‘It’s time for the Plain People of Writing to stand up for themselves’. I’ve started to imagine him self-publishing The Third Policeman on a 1940’s equivalent of a Kindle.

(In my defence, my paper for the conference is titled Parallel Explorations of the Boundaries Between Fiction & Real-Life. So perhaps I’m a bit out of kilter.)

Anyway, when I return from Prague it will be time to get back to my 100-foot long bean bag which I think is arranged as neatly as it can be – or at least as neatly as I can arrange it.  And now that all the writing, re-writing, abandoning, restructuring and despairing is nearly done, it will be time for other people to grapple with all those words I’ve written. All I have to do is to find a way to make that happen.

In fact, all I have to do is take it off the sideboard and get it out there.

For more information on the International Flann O’Brien Society, follow this link: http://www.univie.ac.at/flannobrien2011/IFOBS.html

Working the pile: a submission reader’s experience of a literary agency

For most of us writing is about trying to keep the dream alive. An hour every morning, two hours every night, weekends lost to pounding the keyboard. Sometimes we wonder if there is anybody else out there.

But there is. There’s an entire industry: writers writing; editors editing; publishers publishing; booksellers book-selling, readers reading; literary agents… agenting? In this age of print-on-demand and digital self-publishing what exactly does that mean?

Not so long ago I spent a week as a submissions reader in a boutique literary agency that specialises in commercial, literary fiction.

My first impression when I arrived was one of books: books on shelves, books in piles, books in boxes, books on desks – books everywhere. This was a place steeped in the written word, and nowhere more so than my desk which seemed to bow beneath an enormous pile of unsolicited manuscripts – the legendary slush pile, which these days is more kindly referred to as general submissions.

Thousands arrive every year; hundreds every week. But given the supreme importance of this moment, the moment an author’s hopes and dreams might rest on, I was surprised at how careless many submitters seemed to have been.

I saw letters where the name of the agent was misspelled; where the target address was for another agent; where there was a coffee stain that obliterated part of the text. I saw hand-written manuscripts. I saw one submission that had been typewritten in a tiny point-size, faded and single-spaced and scarcely visible.

It seemed that after months and perhaps years of effort, these noble authors had simply stuffed their work in an envelope and thrown it out the window hoping it would arrive on someone’s desk.

TIP ONE: send a simple, direct letter which gives an immediate sense of what your manuscript is about, along with a clear, one-page summary and the first three chapters. Don’t play around with fonts and colours or add photographs or graphics. Yes, you will stand out but for all the wrong reasons. These guys have seen it all so don’t make them groan. 12pt, black, double-spaced, Ariel or Times, A4, one-inch margins. Perfect.

However, working that pile was a humbling experience. Many of the writers had completed a novel of over a hundred thousand words, which in itself a huge accomplishment and respect is due to them all. Many were good stories too, and competently and well-written.

Unfortunately ‘competently and well-written’ is not good enough. It has to be exceptionally good. The hard fact is that of the thousands of unsolicited submissions received each year, possibly two will progress to publication.

TIP TWO: edit, edit, edit; simplify, simplify, simplify. Find beta-readers, get friends and family to comment, read it out loud – polish it as much as you can. It is easier to dismiss a manuscript than to accept it. And once it’s been bounced by an agent, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll look at it again.

Of course, work rejected by one agency may well be accepted by another. And there are other routes to an agent’s in-box – creative writing courses, recommendations, referrals from other agents, and the always-welcome happy coincidence and plain good luck.

There is a reason why agents are so picky. These are demanding times. As publishers merge and consolidate there is less choice for agents and writers, and as the number of high street outlets lessen and online shops drive down prices, there are less channels through which the publishers can get the scale of sales volume they need to recover their costs. The effect this squeeze has on literary fiction is exacerbated when the main outlets concentrate on big novels and big debut novelists with only one or two major releases each season (January to June and July to December).

A novel’s success is usually measured in terms of sales, and all publishers have access to the sales volumes of published books. If a debut novel fails then it is difficult (but not unheard of) for an author to get a good second deal. Prizes, word-of-mouth, positioning in outlets, and good reader reviews across social media all help.

TIP THREE: blog, tweet, post, self-promote, network, attend readings – unashamedly push your work. It might have been okay for JD Salinger to lock himself away in the woods but it probably won’t work for you.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook lists about 150 literary agencies in the United Kingdom and they vary in size from one person to large organisations. It’s a risky business. Agents tend to work on a commission-only basis, and the percentage of commission they take (typically 10-15% in the UK; 20% abroad) must cover all of their overheads.

But if they like your work then a good agent will work closely with you and often suggest three or four drafts before they take the decision to send the manuscript to the publishers. Much of an agency’s power is based on the authors on its list, along with the integrity of the agency and its company culture. If a publisher believes in and respects the agency, then they will probably feel the same about you as an author.

TIP FOUR – choose your agent carefully. The temptation to go with the first agent who wants you is enormous. But this could be a life-long relationship. They should be as enthusiastic about your work as you are. Your agent should be an advocate of your work as well as your friend. If you have options, talk to as many as possible before you decide.

Agents are not the only way to get your work read, nor are they the only route to becoming a published novelist. It is entirely possible to find a publisher without having an agent (and many authors do), or to self-publish, and to be very successful.

But sometimes an agent can open doors that might remain closed to an author on their own. And while we are pounding away on our keyboards they can be out there uniting our interests with those of a publisher’s; negotiating a sustainable advance and maximising the sale of our UK publishing rights, magazine rights, overseas publishing rights, and television and film rights.

In short, they can be out there helping to keep the dream alive.