Terence Blacker: Why is everyone writing a novel these days?

Let us not get drawn into the unpleasant spat that has developed between The Sun and its much-tattooed social critic Garry Bushell.

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Let us not get drawn into the unpleasant spat that has developed between The Sun and its much-tattooed social critic Garry Bushell. Our business is to look at the big picture. Garry decided, like his fellow columnist Richard Littlejohn, that the time had come for him to write a novel. When his leering, sexist tale of right-wing paranoia (please don't expect me to be fair) appeared in another newspaper, Garry was fired.

It is an odd business. Over the past few days, all three tabloids have been aggressively serialising novels. It seems that Bushell's sin was not just that he appeared in a rival publication, but that he did it with a novel. As his former headline-writing colleagues might have put it, "IT WAS FICTION WOT DONE HIM".

For suddenly, weirdly, fiction is hot, an essential part of popular culture. Every day, a new celebrity announces that he or she has written, is writing or – most frequently of all – is thinking of writing a novel. Last month it was Sven Goran Ericsson and Nasty Nick of Big Brother; this weekend Kylie Minogue and Iain Duncan Smith joined the party.

There are some obvious reasons for the trend. A novel can bring a celebrity money, publicity and credibility for relatively little effort. What used to be publishing's dirty little secret – that you don't actually have to write to be a published writer – is now explicit. A vast army of backroom enablers and facilitators exists to provide the Kylies and Nasty Nicks with words and a narrative voice.

But something else, beyond cash and self-advancement, is going on here. Writing fiction has established itself as a desirable pursuit in itself, an important aspect of personal growth. Until now I have found this idea questionable – authors, to put it politely, are hardly the best advertisement for the therapeutic effects of what they do – but now I find I am changing my mind.

Last week I was in south-west France teaching at the Las Cabanes Writers Centre, a rather brilliant course run by an expatriate literary couple, Jan and Trevor Johnson. The majority of those on the course were not planning to make money or advance their careers; some did not actually want to be published.

They were writing for the purest and most honourable of reasons – for themselves. Fiction was a way of coming at their lives from a new angle, of looking at things in their past and their present which were unresolved. It was not an escape from the pressures of the real world – far from it – so much as a conviction that, just now and then, writing a story can provide shape and possibly even meaning to the messes, conflicts and tragedies of everyday life.

And, of course, it can.

On my return, the newspapers were full of the latest theme to catch the attention of fiction-watchers. The journalists who habitually report on vast advances and overnight successes have excitedly discovered that sometimes writing fiction can be difficult for even the most successful authors.

There were gloating details of the late Douglas Adams's problems in writing a novel. It was said that, having received a large advance, he became inhibited by the realisation that a single manuscript page was worth £8,000, that typing a word made him £10.

Then Alex Garland, author of The Beach, was revealed to have delayed delivery of his latest novel, suffering, it was alleged, from writer's block.

Rightly, the authors' respective agents have pointed out that Adams's difficulties had nothing to do with money, that Garland merely wishes to write the best book he can. All the same, the stories point up the pressures involved in feeding a hungry and brutal market.

Maybe those, like the writers of Las Cabanes, who are simply telling themselves stories, have the right idea.