“Shakes, cold sweats, anxiety, dizziness –yes, it’s almost time to let my wife see my new book. At which point, it ceases to be perfect...”: Ian Rankin’s tweet this week, on the apprehension felt by any writer, however seasoned, on handing a just-finished manuscript to their first, most formative reader: the other half. Rankin elaborated further on his wife’s indispensable, if unforgiving, role in the story’s revision: “All the plot-holes I can’t see, the clunky constructions and repeated phrases and tropes – they’re about to be pointed out...”
Others will surely know the feeling. Alongside the dread of impending judgement, which Rankin’s tweet so vividly captures, is safety in the knowledge that this trustworthy reader will speak up in the best interests of the story in a way that a polite/young/star-struck editor may not. What the tweet reminds us is that this tier of important, yet unofficial, editors arrive on the scene before the publisher’s editor and agent is even allowed to get their paw-prints on a new manuscript.
Kazuo Ishiguro spoke of his wife’s influence in shaping The Buried Giant. Having written it in fifth-century vernacular, he changed its period language after counsel from her. “I showed Lorna a hunk of it – probably about 60 pages… and she said that this absolutely would not do at all: ‘You’ll have to start again from scratch because the language you’re using is just not right’.” He also suggested, in a TV interview, that she gives a guaranteed honest opinion while others might be more deferential down the line. The wife of one Man Booker nominated novelist (who shall remain nameless) says he reads each work-in-progress to her piecemeal, 10 pages at a time, and she feels she must be “brutally honest”, because she might be the only one who can be so.
Andrea Levy has spoken of her husband as an important first reader, while Michel Faber became the most poignant recent example, when, on the death of his wife, Eva, he decided never to write another novel again (though I’m told he may well continue to write short stories and poetry). For Faber fans, it’s a devastating moratorium, which we hope might end after the bereavement process. But a source at Canongate felt Faber’s decision was in keeping with his writing process and the collegiate aspect his wife brought to it. She was the one who persuaded him to send his work off to publishers in the first place, and she was the first reader of his bestseller, The Crimson Petal and the White who said, in no uncertain terms, that he should not kill of the charismatic Victorian prostitute, Sugar, in the middle of the story as he had intended.
Matt Haig, who writes both adult and children’s fiction, has ditched a past manuscript because his wife, Andrea, didn’t like it. “I often show her a novel-in-progress on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. I totally trust her, and have more faith in her opinion than my own sometimes. I once abandoned an entire novel because she didn’t like it. But when she does like something, it gives me the fuel to power on. With Reasons to Stay Alive [his latest book on his history of depression] it was a bit more complicated, as she was part of the story I was writing but she gave me a complete Carte Blanche to tell the truth. And I certainly couldn't have written it without that support and freedom.”
Are these spouses the best judges? Well, they aren’t necessarily the most well-read. But they are well-read in everything their spouse has ever written. The intersection between knowing the writer, and knowing what works in their fiction, evidently affords them an opinion that matters. So many spouses have, historically, been amanuenses too. Have we underestimated the creative input of these (mostly) wives and lovers? There are rich grounds for further investigations into these invisible but indispensable readers-cum-editors, who shape a novel with their quietly commanding influence.
So how do dead people write their own story?
Autobiography can be written without the central player, we heard this week, as Pan Macmillan announced a posthumous memoir by Nelson Mandela, assembled from the writings he left behind, together with the efforts of the team around him. Kate Grenville is, meanwhile, bringing out One Life: My Mother’s Story, which weaves fragments of her late mother’s memoir with social history and can be seen as a memoir of sorts itself. The idea of writing an autobiography combined from first person fragments, but also a perspective outside this subjectivity, with the memoirist no longer there to authorise it, is a fascinating one that shouldn’t be outrightly dismissed.Reuse content