Write what you know, they say.
What depressing advice for writing fiction. As someone who loves reading for escape, why would I possibly want to write about what I KNOW? I’m already living in my little world, and would like to write partly to get away from it. As a typical reader with vague and unrealistic (but no less treasured for that) pipe-dreams to one day write a novel, nothing discourages me more from setting pen to paper than the advice that I should reproduce what’s already squirreled away in my head. It’s not like my life has been worthy of great dramatic literature. And if you DID have to draw only from life, surely our authors would all be wild, dysfunctional, manic-depressive, world-trekking nuts who’ve experience both nadir and pinnacle of society. But in reality they’re mostly reclusive bookish nerds who live in garden suburbs and give me hope through the sheer banality of their day-to-day lives.
No, the advice I read recently – which filled me with waves of excitement and possibility – was this: “Write the book you want to read.”
Suddenly the world is open to me. What I know is a happy home counties upbringing, a glum time at a fairly good university, a move to the city which I constantly try to get out of, a little love story. Which has been great to live, but I don’t hear the cries of “BESTSELLER!” But what do I like to read about? Conflicted, sprawling, growing families; countries all over the world; politics, philosophy, art; self-doubt and self-discovery. Now that’s a book worth writing, and reading too.
Anyway, someone who clearly did NOT feel limited by the write-what-you-know thing is David Lodge. This was not my first encounter with David Lodge – as a university academic and a literary critic, his book “Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader” formed a keystone of my first year English Lit studies. On encountering this prestigious name in Waterstones, my student conscientiousness no doubt stirred, I felt impelled to pick and read. The novel charts the journeys of numerous university academics and literary critics as they voyage to an endless series of conferences around the world. Wherever did he get the inspiration?
This is specific stuff. Had I not studied Literary Criticism, I’m not sure I would have dragged myself through the reams of jokes about post-structuralist and Marxist readings of texts. (Lodge knows how to take the piss out of LitCrit like no-one else, though surely not many are trying.) But after a tortuous start at an exceptionally boring conference (for character and reader both), Lodge jets off around the world with an eclectic and pleasurably stereotyped bunch of characters and the whole thing becomes a bit of a riot. Lodge’s position on conferences is this: they are the thrilling opportunity for stifled academics get the chance to mingle, drink and rut with gay abandon, all over the world. Travel, shag, make highfalutin jokes about LitCrit, repeat. There’s also a delicate quest narrative of one of the few likeable characters seeking his Grail-like woman, and crammed in there’s also a kidnap, a scrap for a top job, a fistful of affairs, and a hell of a lot of plane journeys.
Could I keep track of all the different characters? No. Too many names, not enough story around them. Did I have a intellectually smug snigger at Lodge’s portrayal of the scraps of different schools of literary thought? Yes. Worthy of a Booker Prize nomination? Of course not! It’s F.R. Leavis meets, and is overpowered by, Jilly Cooper (though you know how much I respect Ms Cooper’s work.)
Not only is this a novel written about Lodge’s world – it’s really written FOR his world, too. But if you’ve studied LitCrit and want to peer into the world of riotous, wife-swapping academic conferences courtesy of someone who knows them firsthand, this is for you.