I love the Edinburgh Book Festival's audiences, although sometimes they do make me wonder

'Why are none of the women I know able to finish any of your novels?' I was asked by one attendee. I tried not to let too much time pass before I answered. No more than an hour.

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The Independent Online

Just back from speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where the audiences surpass all others for intelligence. Quick, shrewd, funny, responsive, learned, sceptical, appreciative, mature – but not so mature that you worry they won’t survive the hour – generous with their applause and eager to buy multiple copies of your novel afterwards. An audience, in short, from book heaven.

I’ve written before about the trials of literary festivals. The dread that seizes a writer just before he enters the tent, lest no one has turned up, or those that are there have got the time and place wrong and think he’s E L James, not H E Jacobson, and have come to hear him discuss the eroticism of the Bri-nylon handcuff. As far as I’m aware this hasn’t yet happened to me, though it could explain why there’s always a man with a rucksack who noisily leaves the minute I begin a reading. An elderly Mancunian lady did once erroneously go to hear another writer when she thought she was going to me, positioned herself on the front row (whether out of idolatry or poor hearing I don’t know), then fainted when a character in that other author’s novel started kicking a tramp’s head in. So it’s possible that the man with the rucksack is simply waking to the realisation that, yet again, no one’s head is going to get kicked in at my event.

But the real trial starts when the talk is over. How to shake off the person who thinks he knew your father, or thinks he might be your father, in order to make it to the signing table before those wanting to buy a book get bored and leave without one. What to do when someone you know well requests a dedication and you can’t remember his name? A favourite recourse of writers who find themselves in this position is to ask: “How do you spell that again?”, which you might just get away with if the person’s called Caoilfhionn or Feardorcha, but you look pretty stupid if his name’s Bob.

Of my old tendency to overdo the dedication and deface the title page with florid compliments and obscure quotes which the recipient cannot read, I will say only that I learnt my lesson when I had to shell out with my own money for a hardback I’d vandalised and now limit myself to “Good wishes”. I confess, though, that I feel bad about it. A novelist should be able to do better than that. Imagine the anticlimax of opening a novel you’d just got Dostoyevsky to sign and finding “Keep smiling – Fyodor”. Or the disappointment of leaving Prague with a copy of The Trial signed “To Bob, Cheers, K”.

 

There I was, anyway, sitting behind the signing table, writing “Good wishes” and meaning it, because these were my Edinburgh readers – quick, shrewd, funny, appreciative and the rest of it – when two pleasant-looking people turned up and announced themselves, significantly, as  “a couple”. “And?” I thought about saying  to them. “So?”

But I didn’t want to be rude if being a couple was important to them. We exchanged blank looks for an unconscionable time, while others in the queue grew restive, until I recalled that in the course of my talk I’d referred to myself as couple-centric, a writer concerned above all for the conditions, social or psychological, that make love able to flourish or not. It’s a weakness of mine to forget what it is I’ve just been talking about so that when people make witty allusions to it I stare at them open-mouthed, not knowing what they’re talking about. I keep meaning to have a little notice on my signing table saying: “Please don’t make my own jokes back to me – I won’t get them.”

“Ah,” I said at last. “A couple, yes. And a very fine couple, if I may say so. Well matched, I’d guess, in every way. Same height, same...” I stopped there before my garrulity got me into trouble and I ended up writing something along the lines of “Love is looking out for one another – Friedrich Nietzsche”. Instead, I asked to whom I should sign the book, knowing that they’d want it made out to them as an entity, the well-matched, sweet-natured couple who’d remembered more of what I’d said than I.

A writer should never allow himself to be lulled out of the vigilance native to his profession. Open your face like a flower and you risk having done to it what that character in that other writer’s novel did to the tramp’s. Just as the happy couple was about to leave, half of it – the female half – leaned confidentially towards me, as though for a whisper or a kiss, and said: “I have a question.” “Ask away,” I said. So she did. “Why are none of the women I know, including me, able to finish any of your novels?”

I tried not to let too much time pass before I answered. No more than an hour. “What you describe is not my experience,” I said sweetly. “If anything I find that more women read me, get me, and, yes, finish me, than men. So I’m afraid I cannot answer your question.”

It turned out she had the answer herself. “I think it’s a masculine thing,” she said. But could say no more because her own masculine thing was pulling her away.

I just had time to denounce reading as a gender-sensitive activity. I grew up reading countless novels written about women by women, I said, and never once felt excluded on the grounds that I wasn’t one. Jane Eyre pleased me more than Tom Jones. Reader, I was Fanny Price. Tell your women friends not to go looking in novels for themselves, I wanted to say, but by this time she’d been dragged off. I suspect her other half was going to give her a hard time when he got her home. “How could you be so rude to that nice novelist?” he would say. Maybe he would even divorce her.

But I am couple-centric and hope that doesn’t happen. Finding a way to stop her going to the Edinburgh Book Festival again would be punishment enough.

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