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A Novelist's Advice to Himself

A Novelist's Advice to Himself

Bill Clegg, the American literary agent whose debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, is one of this year's Man Booker longlistees. Since his day job is dealing with other novelists he had a unique perspective when writing his own book, and a chastening one too: ‘It, to me, is an act of stunning hubris to attempt to write when you look at who I work with.’ He turned out to be his own best councillor though and followed the advice he gives to all aspiring novelists, ‘which is when someone comes to me and says they want to write a book, I say there’s really no advice to give. If you feel like you don’t have a choice to write it, write it. If you feel like you do have a choice, then move on, because there are so many books in the world’. So Did You Ever Have a Family was the result of a lack of choice then? Clegg puts in another way: it ‘just sprung up like a weed…’

Amidst the debate about the number of American writers on this year's Man Booker longlist, a writer on the Huffington Post has identified an unexpected Man Booker effect. While expressing mild surprise that American novels are relished outside the USA (‘it is apparent that instead of just stories that are merely American-centric, these novels [on the Man Booker longlist] have the ability to create an influential reaction from critics and readers overseas as well’) he thinks that the prize itself is affecting the way Americans write: ‘The Man Booker Award is certainly showing that American writers are stepping outside of the Great American Novel in favour of appealing to a larger audience, in what could be called the Great English Language Novel.’ The Man Booker itself wouldn't presume to make such a claim but is nevertheless chuffed that someone else has.

In a thoughtful essay to mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of his debut collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, Ian McEwan – Man Booker winner in 1998 – pondered changing times. He recalled how critics reacted with a sort of delighted horror to his tales of ‘sibling incest, cross-dressing, a rat that torments young lovers, actors making love mid-rehearsal, children roasting a cat, child abuse and murder, a man who keeps a penis in a jar and uses esoteric geometry to obliterate his wife’. The business of fiction in 1975 (when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the then plain Booker Prize with Heat and Dust), said McEwan, was ‘to find a boundary, then cross it’. Today ‘in books and especially on screens, sexual explicitness continues to flourish’, the boundaries though have gone and ‘culturally, we are neither puritanical nor 'liberated'. Just profoundly confused.’

Many readers are habitually fascinated by the mechanics of writing a novel, so here's a factoid for them… Anna Smaill, New Zealander author of the longlisted The Chimes, is the mistress of waste-not-want-not: she wrote her 90,000-word novel in longhand on bits of scrap paper before typing up each day's work at night.

As readers in the North East wait for the announcement of the Man Booker shortlist on September 15th they might like to divert themselves the evening before with a trip to Middlesbrough. Courtesy of the Booker Prize Foundation, the prize's charitable arm, and the National Literacy Trust, Joanna Trollope will be visiting Middlesbrough Reference Library to talk about her books and give tips to aspiring novelists. Tickets for the event can be bought at any Middlesbrough library or by calling 01642 729002.