“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Praise Of Bitterness And Begrudgery

A guy I know, let’s call him Reed Farrel Coleman, isn’t too impressed with the idea that I review books for a living. I don’t, as it happens, because very few people earn a living from reviewing books, but reviewing can be a nice way of occasionally topping up your meagre freelance income. Anyway, Reed’s point is that writers really shouldn’t sit in judgement on their colleagues. This misses the point for me - I don’t consider bad writers my colleagues, and I wouldn’t presume to consider good writers my colleagues either. In my head, I’m someone who has managed to get a couple of books published without getting tarred and feathered in the process. I’m not a writer, unfortunately, and as time goes by, it becomes less and less likely that I will become one.
  It did occur to me at some point during last weekend - no idea where the revelation came from, or what the catalyst was - that Reed might be right, given that I’ve grown terribly bitter about books in the last while. There’s two reasons for this, I think - one, I’ve been commissioned to review more and more books over the last year or so; and two, my own writing career (koff) fallen off a cliff. All of which, you’ll probably agree, is perfectly understandable, especially the bit about my own writing falling off a cliff, but it’s all a bit wearyingly predictable too.
  Today, reading Declan Hughes’ latest, THE CITY OF LOST GIRLS, for the purposes of review, I came across this little snippet. Basically, an Irish Times journo, a failed scriptwriter, has railed against Jack Donovan, an Irish film director who has made it big in Hollywood, and one of Jack’s acolytes rails back thusly:
“And now he turns around and he has a go at everyone who has succeeded … And it’s not even for me, or Jack, he can’t really hurt us, it’s people starting out, people in the early stages, he’s on them like a ton of bricks, willing them to fail, like the worst kind of begrudger. You know, just once, I’d like to see someone nail the cunt, tell him the reason he’s like this has nothing to do with, what, critical judgement or artistic standards, no, it’s because deep down he knows he’s a failure, a fucking failure, he tried to be something and he failed, and rather than accept it, and own it, he just lashes out at anyone who stayed in the game.”
  Nicely put, that man. And isn’t ‘begrudgery’ a grand word?
  Here’s the thing, though - I can’t speak for the quality of Jack Donovan’s movies, given that Declan Hughes invented the guy and his films, but I can fully understand why a failed writer might get bitter, especially if he’s reading books all the way through - as he’s bound to do, when he’s being commissioned to review - that he’d rather toast marshmallows on, if he wasn’t afraid they’d poison the marshmallows. Because while there are far, far worse things in life than having to read a rubbish novel knowing you’re going to get paid for writing about it afterwards, it’s still a huge pain in the hoop to do so, knowing that there are so many good books out there that you’ll never get the time to read.
  Because that’s the flip side, I think, of being a failed writer - there are few readers as well positioned as a failed writer to truly appreciate a good book. And whereas a couple of years back I could have simply set aside a bad book after 10 pages or so, before I actually started gagging on my bile, these days I need to grind right through to the end, which is the equivalent of rubbing my own nose in dog-dirt. By the same token, reading a good book - and Declan Hughes’ CITY OF LOST GIRLS, happily enough for the purpose of this post, falls into this category - inspires the kind of envy that generally, and simply, goes, ‘Shit, I wish I was that good.’
  There’s a question in the regular Q&A that I run on Crime Always Pays which is for me the one that gives the most insight into a writer, or as much insight as can be gleaned from a 10-question Q&A. It’s the one about God appearing, and saying you can only read or write, and which will it be. For me, it’s a no-brainer - I’d read, because the books I want to read are better than anything I’m capable of writing. And, given that I’m a failed writer, Beckett’s dictum on failing and failing again better notwithstanding, the last thing I want to be reading is a book not fit to lace my own books’ shoelaces, if you’ll forgive the mangled metaphor.
  Which is to say that I am growing increasingly bitter about books, but about bad books specifically; and given that I’m a shallow bugger at the best of times, and that jealousy, envy and bitterness as so easily accessed, no one is more surprised than me to discover that I’m learning to appreciate a good book more and more as time goes by.
  There are, as Raymond Chandler said, only two kinds of books, good and bad. Leaving aside the money, anyone who isn’t embittered by what a bad book costs them in terms of reading time should probably stop reading and take up crochet instead.

14 comments:

Mike Cane said...

>>>I’m a failed writer

Knock it off, or we'll all have to slap you around.

Pepper Smith said...

Yeah, what he said.

The reading public is fickle. The fact that publishing houses took a chance on your work to begin with says a lot about the quality of your work.

Failed to me means someone who never bothered to finish he started. You don't fall into that category.

LP said...

Declan,

As a wise man once said;

"Bred to a harder thing than triumph, turn away....be secret and exult because of all things known that is the most difficult."

And in exulting rejoice for the blog may be mightier than the failed novel.

Declan Burke said...

Ta for the kind words, folks, but really - no prizes, no fat (or even slim) cheques lying about, no queue of commissioning editors at the door ... what, exactly, do we define as success these days? You don't have to sell millions of copies, or indeed win prizes, to be a successful writer ... but unless your books are being published, then you're not really entitled to claim anything other than failure. After all, books are written to be read. If they're not, they've failed to achieve their purpose, regardless of the reasons.

Cheers, Dec

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Wrong, Dec.
You may be a currently depressed and knocked-back writer, but a failed one? Never.
As the others say, there is a difference between writing and catching the publishing/marketing wave. You're just waiting for the big one.

LP said...

Failure my arse. It's all a matter of perception.

Anyone who can produce the high quality blog you produce is far from a failure. Woods and trees come to mind.

Shoot the word failure and bury it in the dark part of the woods.

Mike Cane said...

He's really looking for a good beating, isn't he?

Dana King said...

I feel you. I’m going through my more or less annual bipolar writing trough, generally disgusted with most things writing-related and wondering if I wouldn’t enjoy myself more doing any number of other things. (Re-learning the trumpet, watching baseball and hockey, exercising, etc.) This generally bad attitude has made it much harder to review books, for many of the reasons you cite.

If the book stinks, I can’t keep myself from thinking how this piece of shit got published and I can’t. Then I have to keep after myself to keep any of that from seeping into the review, which sometimes makes the review not as honest as I’d like.

Then there are the books by (the many) writers better than me, which leaves me thinking who the hell am I to pass judgment on this guy’s book? Plus, I’m not getting paid for any of this (labor of love and all that), so that’s another layer.

Worse yet (from a reviewer’s perspective) I have become quite friendly with several writers over the past few years, thanks to blogs and Bouchercon and social networking, and I live in fear that one day I’m going to be asked to review one of their books and I’m going to have to not like it in public. Thankfully, this has not happened yet (honest to God), but we all know it will.

What’s a boy to do?

Nate Flexer said...

I like to look at the bright side--perhaps you'll be fantastically succesful after you die. Anything to cheer up a talented writer!

seana said...

You're a very good writer. What I'd say about the success or failure part is that I don't think it proceeds linearly. There's a kind of accretion that bursts forth in unexpected places. Luck plays it's part and I doubt very much that your luck has run out on the fiction writing side. Even if it might seem so in the moment.

Anonymous said...

I have two books here -written by you- that seem to suggest you are a very good writer indeed. Go figure.
Arlene

Declan Burke said...

Dana - That reviewing thing is a dilemma, yes. But it's not your friends you'll have to look at in the mirror last thing before you go to bed. Unless you're very unlucky, of course ...

Nate - You're a chirpy bugger, and no mistake.

Seana & Arlene - Gee, shucks, etc.

Listen, folks - I'm nowhere as down on myself as you all seem to think. In terms of the big picture, I've had two books published, which is two more than I ever thought I would. If that someday becomes three books published, then great. Meantime, life continues to be lived on a day-to-day basis ... most of which is very good indeed.

Cheers, Dec

Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I'm a one-time house reviewer who, faced with questions like "Do you have an architect's or engineer's report to back up your statement that this house is surrounded by three roads?" decided that life was too short to spend it writing for money.

Photographe à Dublin said...

... when doing it for pleasure is so much more fun...