Writers: is the novel bad for your health?

Not your actual physical health, that is (although I did once stub my toe on a copy of Ulysses. But hey, who hasn't?). Not even your mental health, even if trying to finish that novel is making your drink more wine than is good for you, and at the wrong times of the day. No, I mean 'career' health. We all know that tiresome phrase 'everyone has a novel in them'. Why a novel? Why not a poem or a play or an essay or short story or a memoir? Behind that statement is the notion that we all have a 'life story', something to tell about our lives that is valuable and interesting and can be transformed by magic into a work of fiction.

It makes me think of Claire Clairmont, the step-sister to Mary Shelley (and why did two poets, Byron and Shelley, encourage Mary Shelley to write a novel and not a poem anyway? I know it was a ghost story competition that night at the Villa Diodati in Geneva, but I've always found it all slightly suspect. As though the poetry was theirs and they didn't want a girl interfering. And even if they didn't want her writing poetry, why not non-fiction? Mary Shelley's parents were William Godwin, who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice - he did write a novel, Caleb Williams which will only make you cry dry tears - and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. If their daughter had had any literary bent at all, you'd have thought non-fiction would be the ideal medium for her).

But novels weren't taken as the highest form of art then, in spite of Jane Austen and Rousseau. That didn't stop her friends exhorting Claire Clairmont, all through her life, to write a novel. She wrote such brilliant letters, Mary Shelley would tell her. When was she going to finish that novel? Well, she never did - she did start one, a sort of Rousseau-ish mash-up, which the world is probably blessed not to have in published form. Instead, what we do have is the most amazing selection of fantastic letters, as well as her journals. Of her affair with Byron, which produced her one child, Allegra, Claire wrote to Jane Williams: "You will allow me to talk upon this subject for I am unhappily the victim of a happy passion: I had one like all things perfect in its kind, it was fleeting and mine only lasted ten minutes, but those ten minutes have discomposed the rest of my life..."

What a sentence! It's hard to think of many lines in a novel to match it. And yet, the novel is held up to all of us as the art form - if you ask writers who have written novels, structured plays, adapted for tv, whatever, which they were most proud of, I'm 99.9% sure they'd say their novel (as usual, I have no evidence other than anecdotal. After all, if there are lies, damned lies and statistics, why not?). Martha Gellhorn tied herself in knots over her novels, trying desperately to  make them better and never succeeding, but she breezed through astonishing, revolutionary journalism. The same could be said of Rebecca West. The midlist today is, I strongly suspect, full of mediocre novelists who might actually be better journalists, playwrights, poets, memoirists. But they ignore other art forms and persevere with the one that, ironically, might be their weakest.

Why? A cursory glance at creative writing programmes shows a heavy emphasis on the novel; workshops are geared to wards it, too. It's the Booker that gets people talking and writing screeds about longlists, not the Samuel Johnson prize or even the Forward. Since the 18th century, through the nineteenth when the novel turned blockbuster and the early twentieth when it became the art form extraordinaire thanks to the Modernists, we have held it in the highest esteem, and forgotten that there are other things we could - and possibly should - be doing. When I worked as an editor at the Writers Workshop, I was struck by the number of aspiring writers using real-life family stories as a basis for their fiction. But all of them were reluctant to deviate from 'the truth', even for the sake of greater dramatic tension. Really, they should have been writing memoirs. If you can't be ruthless enough to turn saintly Aunt Agatha into a riotous harlot, then you shouldn't be writing fiction.

There's something simultaneously democratic and elitist about the novel. Increasingly though, I've noticed fictive elements creeping into non-fiction forms, and I quite like this development. If it helps make people think that non-fiction, for instance, is within their reach, too, then great. I suspect most people think you have to be famous to write a memoir (or have suffered a gruesome history of abuse). But Elif Batuman's The Possessed was an interesting mix of personal experience and literary musings, Lila Azam Zanganeh's The Enchanter invented an interview between the author and Nabokov (oh, how many of us have fantasised about interviewing our favourite, even if they're dead), Ann Wroe's Being Shelley was full of invention and imagination about his life.

Perhaps I would say this, having published a non-fiction book. I definitely found my historical novel harder to do (although my first novel was easy) - does that mean I'm more of a non-fiction writer than a novelist? I don't know yet. I do know, though, that I want to resist thinking that my novels are the better art form than my non-fiction,  partly because the temptation to do so is there, pressed upon me by the times we live in.


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