Ten years ago Giles Coren‘s first and so far only novel was published. He got a £30k advance, it was slated in reviews, it won a Bad Sex Award, and combined hardback and paperback sales barely nudged the 1000 mark. He retired hurt, not to mention baffled, and stuck to non-fiction.
Ten years later he felt brave enough to make a documentary about it, which I caught on Sky last night. It was really quite touching as you saw the penny begin to drop. He spoke to the reviewers. He listened in on a book club tearing it apart. He took the first chapters to a creative writing course workshop. He tried rereading it himself and found it unbearable. (He couldn’t get through the Bad Sex Award-winning passage without breaking down into laughter.) He listened in awe to the likes of David Mitchell and Jeffrey Archer as they described their highly disciplined writing habits, and admitted to the latter that he had basically been lazy.
And he came to the conclusion that this was the first novel everyone has – the one that should be written and then spend the rest of eternity in a trunk in the attic. Only, because he was Giles Coren, his got sold for a £30k advance. You sensed that even he felt the injustice of this. No one likes being done a favour.
But here’s the thing. Coren is in his late 40s. I can’t imagine his discoveries and revelations being news to anyone past their late twenties or even late teens. I came to the conclusion that I’ve been spoiled by growing up in the science fiction community, where expertise and experience flow like milk and honey. I read Dave Langford’s columns in 8000 Plus. I went to Milford. I jostled with the large crowd trying to get through the narrow doorway of Interzone acceptance. I knew it took hard work. I knew that if you didn’t think this was your best yet then you didn’t send it in. How did anyone not know that?
Conclusion: everyone should be an sf fan.
One thing Coren didn’t do was confront his agent or his editor of ten years ago to ask what the hell they thought they were doing, letting it be published in the first place. They must have known it was rubbish. Sadly, we can probably guess the answer: he was Giles Coren and they assumed it would sell. You can’t blame them for the commercial realities of life.
The programme ended on a high note with Coren talking to William Nicholson, who is in his late sixties, the winner of many awards, and who thinks he’s just about getting the hang of it now.
The one drawback of the entire show was that for a terrible five minutes I found myself warming to Jeffrey Archer.