Five books that plunge a dagger into the heart of the aspiring novelist

by
June 23, 2013

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If I had £1 for every time someone said to me “You’re a copywriter…why don’t you write a novel?” I could probably afford to take the time off and do it.  I’ve made a couple of attempts – who didn’t read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and think “If that’s what it takes then I’m f****** Dostoevsky!”.  Trouble is, I’ve read a few other books besides.  And one or two of them are so good that I’ve realised I should stick with the day job.

I’m not talking about the classics.  Tolstoy, Dickens, Fielding, Austen, Thackeray.  Nobody writes as well as them, so don’t worry about it – you don’t have to be that good to be good.

I’m talking about the books that very briefly became minor best sellers then get buried, the unpretentious ones you pick up because they promise to be a light read, the ones that are presented as merely a bit of fun.  But then, just when you are sprawled on the sofa, with your feet up and a pile of cushions under your head, they punch you in the stomach – this book, which you are just reading for the laughs, is so damn good that you instantly turn green with envy.  This is my book, I should have written this, how could you do this to me?!

If you’ve watched Amadeus you’ll know the feeling.  Court composer Salieri is dumfounded by just how easy Mozart finds it to create music of sublime quality, without even breaking sweat.

This is my shortlist of lesser novels that stops me from writing one myself.  Each one is fun, an entertainment, but just depressingly extraordinary.

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The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

The first couple of lines are killers (for anyone with pretentions to be a writer – abandon hope all ye who read beyond this point).  “My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me.  It’s such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these.”  It perfectly captures the longings and insecurities, hopes and disappointments, egotism and narcissism, of adolescence.

The narrative unfolds as a series of notes to the narrator himself, a neat conceit that allows Amis to review the progress of his deviously desperate quest to seduce Rachel, whilst also pouring scorn on all those about him, including his father, sister, brother-in-law and Geoffrey, his one and only friend.   It’s ruthlessly sharp and the sense of disillusionment experienced by our hero at the tender age of nineteen was a big part of the enjoyment.

The thing that pisses me off most of all?  It was his first novel, published when he was just 24.  If that’s him just getting warmed up I quit here!

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A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd

Another first novel (I hate you!), it’s a rumbustuous story of a disaster-prone British diplomat struggling (unsuccessfully) to stay out of trouble in West Africa.  Although a light hearted romp you just know, with every page, that this guy can write the pants off most people without breaking sweat.  Like The Rachel Papers it was made into a hugely unsuccessful movie, so don’t be tempted to look for it on Lovefilm – read the book!

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Recommended by a niece, who I now realise is a smart cookie.  Only published a few months ago I suspect it may become a blockbuster.  The publishing rights have already been sold for $1.8 million and Sony Pictures are planning a movie.  It was originally written as a screenplay by Graeme Simsion while on a script writing course.  However, over the next five years it was gradually transformed, with a lot of input from others, into a novel.  This long gestation shows – it is very, very tight…not a wasted word throughout.

The notes on the dust jacket give the general idea.  “Don Tillman is getting married.  He just doesn’t know who to yet.  The Wife Project will solve that problem.  He has designed a sixteen-page questionnaire to help him find the perfect partner…”

Professor Tillman, a university teacher of genetics living in Melbourne, exhibits characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome but doesn’t recognise them – he just finds other people frustratingly illogical.  Imagine The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time crossed with When Harry Met Sally.  The succession of faux pas is delivered in a deadpan tone that is hilarious.

Like the Rachel Papers, the hero tries to make sense of their life, and order it, through note taking.  Again, like The Rachel Papers, I suspect it is semi-autobiographical.  Graeme Simsion, an IT consultant,  wrote the standard reference work on data modelling in 1994 and, like Don Tillman, taught at a number of Australian universities (so the two presumably share the same analytical traits).  His wife is a professor of psychiatry, rather like Rosie, the book’s leading female character.

Again, a first novel that fills the aspiring fiction writer with hope (he sold the rights for how much?) and despair (the tone is just so well pitched and managed).

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Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen

I think I picked this up in an airport thinking it would make holiday reading.  I love fishing and detective novels so the line on the front hooked me – “Fishing can be murder when you use the…DOUBLE WHAMMY”.

Private eye R.J Decker is hired by Dennis Gault, tycoon and fishing fanatic, to investigate cheating on the Florida bass-fishing circuit.  He’s immediately sucked down into a murky world of murder, corrupt property deals and outrageous goings on that’s inhabited by a string of characters from way beyond the fringe.

It’s a bit like Raymond Chandler crossed with Hunter S. Thompson, vividly real, outrageously wacky and savagely funny.  Hiaasen started out as an investigative journalist with the Miami Herald (and still works for them) and it’s his reporter’s eye for detail that makes his cast of surreal situations and zany characters so utterly believable.

A couple of his books have been made into films, but they both sank without trace.  Like The Rachel Papers and A Good Man in Africa much of the joy is in the quality of the prose, and this is lost in translation to the big screen.

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So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

I would never have read this if it was not picked by the book club I attend (nb, we drink a lot of wine, eat great nibbles and only occasionally discuss the book).  Unlike the other novels on my list it would never find its way onto the light reading shelf.

The subject matter is hugely unpromising if you like books that make you laugh – it’s about a deeply unsympathetic person dying of cancer.  However, despite a slow start, it gradually has you laughing out loud…and wondering “how the heck has she managed to pull this one off?!”

It’s no surprise to discover that Shriver wrote seven novels and published six (one could not find a publisher) before writing We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book she has described this as her “make or break” novel due to the years of “professional disappointment” and “virtual obscurity”.   So Much for That was written seven years later.  She has done her time, and now has the skills to show for it.

Postscript

An awful lot of people who think they could write good copy, if only they had the time, are wrong.  And an awful lot of copywriters who think they could write a great novel, if only they weren’t so busy, should probably stop kidding themselves.  If you can read these five books, then still believe you have what it takes, then go for it!