Novelists writing ballads? Song-writers dashing off novels? What does it all mean?

Does success in one genre guarantee it in another?

Morrissey’s recent announcement that he is midway through his first novel came with a blunt rationale. Last year’s Autobiography, Morrissey noted, “was more successful than any record I have ever released.” His heroine Patti Smith, meanwhile, is also writing a novel. The fact that people still buy books on a scale which is a fond memory in the record industry may explain the current cascade of rock memoirs, from Rod Stewart to Tim Burgess. But attempting a novel is a rarer, riskier business. The list of songwriters who have written fiction, and of novelists who have attempted lyrics, is short and sometimes inglorious, tempting talents as great as Bob Dylan and Salman Rushdie out of their comfort zone, where they’ve often fallen flat on their faces.

The hardback publication of John Lennon’s In His Own Write in 1964 was rock’s first bid for literary respectability. As with the following year’s A Spaniard in the Works, it saw Lennon collating short stories, poems and illustrations heavily indebted to English nonsense, from Edward Lear to the Goons. Though his books bear no comparison to his music, their very existence declared a new, intellectual ambition for pop. But few were too distressed, either, when he wrote no more.

In America in the 1960s the Beat generation of writers and Bob Dylan’s iconoclastic songwriting were inextricably entwined. But though the pointless debate about whether Dylan’s lyrics stand comparison to the poetry of Keats or Eliot is regularly revived, no such claims are made for his sole novel. His publisher hyped Tarantula ahead of its much-delayed 1971 publication as the work of a “young James Joyce”. But this impenetrably surreal and unstructured book was his first resounding failure. By contrast, Dylan’s example inspired Leonard Cohen to abandon a career as an acclaimed novelist and poet and become a rock songwriter. Cohen rightly reasoned he’d stand a better chance of earning a living. His second and last novel, the densely allusive Beautiful Losers (1966), was critically controversial but little-read on publication. After Cohen became rock’s bedsit laureate, it sold three million copies.

Dylan’s disastrous example made rock musicians steer nervously clear of novel-writing for decades. The Beat writers who had inspired him, though, followed Cohen in the opposite, more lucrative direction. Allen Ginsberg was always hustling for record deals, and in the last  year of his life, 1996, actually got on MTV rotation. His sung-spoken “The Ballad of the Skeletons” benefited from Paul McCartney’s multi-instrumental presence. In 1993, at the height of Nirvana’s fame, Kurt Cobain’s abrasive guitar atmospherics also backed William Burroughs’ reading of “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”.

Away from the Beats, Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) included a lyric for its rock-star lead character which U2 used for their 2000 song of the same name. His fellow Booker-winner Kazuo Ishiguro has explored lyric-writing much more deeply, collaborating on several songs for the jazz singer Stacey Kent. The title track of her latest album, The Changing Lights, an elegant study of adult compromise over time, shows what happens when a fine novelist truly commits to songwriting.      

“I felt as if he really understood me,” Kent tells me, “and wrote for me as if I were a fully conceived character. When we met, we talked about specific things, like what kinds of words would sound right coming out of my mouth. I get to sing what is absolutely my song.” Ishiguro, who Kent discovered had been a keen amateur singer-songwriter at college, was equally delighted to visit her world.

Until Morrissey and Patti Smith, Nick Cave was almost alone among high-profile rock songwriters in risking a sideline in novels, eventually following the southern-gothic fantasia And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) with The Death of Bunny Munro (2009), the depraved tale of a Kylie Minogue-obsessed travelling salesman. But Cave believes these are “infinitely easier” achievements than his songs, and has no doubt of his true vocation.

The field of Americana, whose character-driven, narrative songs often feel like American literature by other means anyway, is where the only rock songwriter to have become more successful as a novelist operates. Willy Vlautin’s band Richmond Fontaine have achieved great  acclaim for albums such as Post to Wire. But it is his four novels, from The Motel Life (2005), recently filmed with Stephen Dorff, to his latest, The Free, which are truly making his name. As with his songs, these books are populated by bruised working-class characters, desperately trying to survive in a heartbreaking America.

Vlautin’s late blooming as a published novelist in his mid-thirties is testament to a subtle, democratising effect of Dylan and Lennon and McCartney on writing, irrespective of their own fiction efforts. In encouraging anyone who could pick up a guitar to write songs, they let Vlautin, a cripplingly shy young man in redneck Reno, Nevada, start to express himself. Thanks to the freeing effect of playing in a rock’n’roll band, he has become a truly fine American novelist.  

“I just came from an average town,” he remembers. “I’d never assumed that a guy where I came from could write stories. So I got into a band, because anybody can get into a band who has a few friends.” Vlautin then wrote novels in secret from the age of 20. But it was being a musician that led to his books being published. “My band helped me get the courage, and then I had the band to lean on in case the books weren’t well-received,” he explains. “I make most of my living writing now. But they take the pressure off each other. Mostly, the books start as songs, and then the story just doesn’t quit. They’re kinda married.”

Whether or not Morrissey’s sudden desire to be a novelist results in a book fit for comparison with any song by The Smiths, it will do well to equal Vlautin’s genuine literature, born from a rock’n’roll life.

‘The Free’ is published by Faber. ‘The Changing Lights’ by Stacey Kent is out now on Parlophone

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?