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Author, author: Advice for young writers-to-be

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Author, author: Advice for young writers-to-be

Fom The Guardian, Saturday 20 June 2009

Last month I was asked to guest edit a magazine, described by its two student editors as "the premiere literary anthology of student writing" from their universities. They wanted me, they said, because "We feel that you are the editor [the magazine] needs in order to revitalise a rather traditional anthology, and someone who would be able to help us select the freshest, edgiest pieces of prose." Flattering, and anyway ... student writing. So I said yes, and sent them the titles of eight of the 15 pieces they had pre-chosen, along with an introduction they'd asked me to write. There were four stories I really liked, the other four were, I thought, borderline OK.

The next day I got an email from the two editors expressing surprise that I had not chosen three stories that were "by far the most popular" with their 12 readers. They were concerned that my introduction suggested that I was "quite disappointed and disenchanted" with the stories. "We understand that you might be reluctant to put your name to a collection that you do not feel is really up to scratch."

I was quite surprised, too, and wrote back to explain I wasn't at all reluctant to put my name to my choice: "Did you only want verification of your own views? Why have a guest editor, then? Actually, those three stories were at the bottom of my list."

As I explained in my introduction, I don't expect to be thrilled by very many stories out of 15, the excellent being rare. Indeed, I suggested that a lot of them would have been better with more work: "You asked me to guest edit, and I guest edited."

The editors wrote back to me to tell me what they really meant:

"It is not possible for us to print your introduction in good conscience. The negative tone does not reflect the spirit of [the magazine], which is meant to be an encouraging platform for new and developing student writers ... we feel that three high-quality stories have been omitted from your final shortlist, and we would not be adequately performing our job as editors of the journal if we allowed those writers to go unrecognised. As a result of these concerns, we can no longer continue this working relationship.

I haven't been sacked since I was 15 and given my cards in quick succession by a grocer's and then a shoe shop. It was quite bracing, though I was more startled by the strange attitude of the editors towards the task of editing. The final lines of their email, however, explained it to their satisfaction: "We are only students and not professionals. We are simply trying to do the best job that we can."

Ah, well then, not to be taken seriously, just children. Here is the introduction I wrote for the student literary magazine, which it won't be printing.

"This is a gloomy time for what they call 'literary writers'. Publishers need bestsellers in order to survive and bookshops charge large sums for display-table space, so that what the browsing public sees is what the publisher is betting on to succeed, not what's available. Actually, it's only a reversion to the regular historical situation for writers rather than a brand new crisis. There was a unique blip in the 1980s and 90s when even writers who weren't producing blockbusters for 'the market' could make a living.Today, most publishers and conglomerate booksellers are run by accountants, and writers are only as good as the profit they deliver. Those writers who write because they need to, and write what they have to, whatever the sales potential, are going to have a difficult time. A young woman I know had a novel turned down by a publisher before they had read it because they sent it first to WH Smith who said it wouldn't sell. This won't stop real writers from writing, but it has promoted the idea that a writer is anyone with a marketable story to tell, and creative writing courses, if not many of their students, are making a fortune."

Having, I hoped, dealt a blow - though a truthful blow - to anyone hoping to make a banker's living out of serious writing, I tackled the writing itself and what, I thought, really ought to matter to young writers. "Does the phrase 'real writer' need explaining? Is it unacceptably exclusionary? Increasingly, I've been hearing from students that 'there is no such thing as good or bad writing'. I reject that. There is good writing, which speaks for itself, and when I read it, especially from new and young writers, I gasp with pleasure. How do you tell the real writers from those in search of a pot of fame and gold? You look at the writing and find engagement with the world (even if it is in the form of disengagement), a deep concern with precision of thought and language, a willingness to risk originality. It doesn't happen very often. Good writers have always been rare, and they are not the same as adept sentence-makers who can contrive a story that reads well enough but leaves you wondering why anyone bothered to write it. That's the test: the best writing leaves you feeling it was inevitable, that it has been crafted into existence of necessity for the writer and the reader.

"All the stories I read for this selection were competently written, but only a few struck me as having come from that necessity. There were genre pieces and memoir, and quite a few stories that depended for their existence on something that has been written before. All writers do that to start with, you have to clear a space for yourself to work in. What surprised me most was how many of the stories felt unfinished, as if I were reading a early draft. Problems with structure, sentences that need to be worked on, far too many easy clichés not rejected - all of this normal for a first draft, even a second. For me writing is the editing. It's where the you make the story your own. Draft, redraft, let the thing sit, and then consider it again, read closely, carefully, cut away everything that you haven't properly thought through, and some things that you have. A few of the stories I reviewed read to me as if they had received the attention that makes a piece of writing something special, and they're to be celebrated. Good writing is hard to come by. It's what I understand Beckett to have meant when he wrote, towards the end of his life, what any writer must take as essential instruction: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."'

I am sorry that there was a disagreement about which stories the editors and I preferred, but I'm much sorrier that they thought a plea for serious writers to write seriously wasn't what new writers ought to hear.