The paranoid life of a literary pheasant

After 15 years of opining as a book reviewer for newspapers, Sam Leith has finished his first novel. Ready, take aim, fire!
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The Independent Culture

Poacher turned gamekeeper: that's usually the phrase, isn't it? But when you jump the fence from being a fiction critic (actually, that's rather a hoity-toity title for what I do: I'm a newspaper book reviewer) to writing your own novel, it doesn't seem quite right. There's nothing all that gamekeepery about fiction. And, unless you're breaking an embargo, there's nothing all that poachery about reviewing a book.

So I'm grateful to a friend for hitting on the exact right phrase: gamekeeper turned pheasant. That is the journey I have tentatively made. Once my first novel, The Coincidence Engine, is published tomorrow, I will be hoping, like all first novelists, for the privilege of a review. But I will also be wondering whether I might be about to get a decade and a half of instant karma. It's more uncomfortable on this side of the firing line. But after years of criticising other people's work, often unkindly, if my own first book gets shot to bits, it will be no more than poetic justice.

Not all book reviewers are frustrated practitioners, but many are. I certainly was. I've been reviewing books for 15 years or so, and during all that time I sort of imagined one day I would write a novel. It took me a while to get around to it, because it's more that I wanted to have written a novel than actually to sit down and write one.

The vanity! Like Jimmy Rabbitte at the beginning of The Commitments, interviewing himself in the bath with a hairbrush. I liked the idea of being A Novelist. But now that, technically, I can claim to be one, it still feels too soon to arrogate that title. I'm a journalist who has written a novel. And a critic who – I hope – will be improved by the experience.

I don't buy the school of thought, incidentally, that denigrates critics or reviewers who aren't practitioners. Are you telling me Sir Frank Kermode was no good because he hadn't written a novel? As a reviewer, you're the reader's representative, not the writer's. It's a reader's competence you need. The writer's struggles are his or her problem.

But there's no harm in getting a taste of what it feels like on the other side; a sense of what those struggles actually are. The thing is, I didn't really believe writer friends when they said writing fiction was difficult. You just make stuff up, no? One-sentence paragraphs for crime; stick in some adjectives if it's literary fiction; bang in a bit of nonsense about the weather if you want to win a book prize, etc etc.

Well, duh. It turns out that it's precisely because you're making stuff up that it's tricky. You have too much choice. Michelangelo might see the David in that block of marble but you, standing there with your jaw slack and your chisel dangling, just see a block of stone. And then, months later, you've got – well, you're not quite sure what you've got.

You might ask: can you read your own fiction with your book-reviewer's head on? It's a reasonable question. While I was writing it, I remember describing it to my editor as weird (it is), and he said: "Weird bad? Or weird good? You're the critic: you ought to know."

One of the things I've learnt is that it doesn't work like that. You can't see what's wrong with your own book because everything's wrong with it. You can only see a Frankenstein creature: a parody of a thing stitched inaccurately and grotesquely together from dead body parts. You can see gaping plot holes, dead metaphors, motiveless action, lifeless jokes.

This, I was not prepared for. I've done a good deal of journalism and I've written non-fiction. When I've finished a piece I usually have a reasonable sense of whether it's okay. With fiction, I found, that sense deserted me. I could tell whether this sentence or that sentence worked, more or less, but at any larger scale that instinct fled me entirely.

Everything that's wrong with it is intensely visible to you. Because you've made each character do this or that, the progress of the plot feels arbitrary: why should X happen rather than Y? And who's going to care? If the novel has worked, the reader will, at some level, believe that what you describe happened, and it will acquire an imaginative solidity. But it feels wispy as smoke to you, the writer.

And everything that might be right with it is, for quite easy-to-understand reasons, completely invisible to you. You don't have any sense (though I imagine experienced novelists acquire it) of the pace at which it will read – you may spend three hours or even three days on something that will take a reader three minutes to pass over. You have no idea how fast it will go for your reader: you just have to guess.

Worst of all, you don't know whether or not it's interesting. My novel is very purposely aimed to entertain people. It has jokes and chases and mad scientists and murders and bizarre and improbable happenings all over the shop. There's not much of Dostoevsky in it at all. So whether or not it makes the reader want to keep on turning the pages is the single most important question – and the one question that, as the author, you can't answer. You know what happens next because you made it happen. Likewise, the jokes. I've got lots of jokes in there – some of them my own. But I've read them over and over again. They don't, now, make me laugh one bit. (Except the one about Osama bin Laden. I'm quite proud of that one.)

So, what's it like writing a novel? It's completely horrible. It's next to impossible. You can barely look at what you've done and you don't really believe the people who claim to like it – although, good Lord, do you squeeze every compliment out of them that you can get! Then – and this is if you're extremely lucky, mind – it gets into the hands of those utter, utter, utter bastards, the critics. I have no idea what possessed me.

'The Coincidence Engine' By Sam Leith Bloomsbury £12.99

'Below where we're sitting this compound goes twelve stories down. There are tea-leaf readers, distance seers, chaos magicians and tarot tellers. Dicemen. Catatonics. Psychokinetics, psychic healers, lunatics. Haruspices. Illuminati. Idiot savants. Hypnotists. Bearded ladies. Oracles. All drinking the same coffee, and all paid for by the American taxpayer."

Red Queen didn't seem entirely sold on the tea-leaf readers, it occurred to Hands, but it didn't seem his place to point it out.

Instead, he said: "So, ah, what is your interest in our mad genius?" '