I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in the process of editing Martin’s book, and as always, it’s been instructive. As Ross mentioned, I’m also a writer. It really is the case that the more you look at various types of writing, the deeper understanding you get of how your own writing might be improved, or at least perhaps where it falls short. Critiquing others’ work is a golden opportunity and I’m very grateful to Martin for providing me with it.
I’m terrible at editing my own novels. (Hence my pile of unedited, completed novels in the digital ‘bottom drawer’.) Martin on the other hand is the most meticulous and most dogged reviser I’ve ever come across – and I know quite a few authors. Personally, I’ve never seen revision schedules like the ones Martin came up with; let alone ones that were followed through on. What you see in this finished book has not fallen there by accident. Maybe this is what happens naturally when a science teacher turns their hand to fiction writing; I don’t know. Whichever way, it’s pretty humbling. Because in the process of writing, typing ‘The End’ at the close of the first draft might as well be translated as ‘The Beginning’. There is a huge proportion of the work yet to be done at that point. And for the writer, it’s infinitely harder to change what you’ve already created than to initiate something new. So what I’m saying is, the portion that I worked with Martin on has been the difficult one, the painful one. To his credit, he took everything on the chin, and soldiered on, no matter what I threw at him. And I threw quite a lot.
Which leads me to the first general comment. Short of Loveis a complete re-working of an earlier work. This predecessor was presented as a first-person narrative and was almost twice as long. So before any of the work for the current product started, Martin had to unpick the previous (gigantic) efforts and completely re-mould them into a form better suited for his audience. This in itself is a Herculean task, and was all done before I ever clapped eyes on the manuscript. One of the outcomes of this reduction in volume is that the pace of the novel is relentless. You won’t be falling asleep over this one: it’s been distilled to 100 proof.
Another reason you won’t be falling asleep is – well, it’s unconventional. In fact, that’s kind of why Martin brought me in on the task. I think initially there was an idea of my offering a ‘solution’ to the complete incompatibility of the outlook of the novel with any notions of gender equality. This, I have not done. The book in itself cannot have such a ‘solution’. Instead, it is itself a gigantic question, posed in novel form. Now, I think my views and Martin’s views on this are, to this day, not quite on a level. My belief is that we, as societies, still do not have the full page open on the gender equality debate, and a work such as this helps to do so. Those of you who would consider yourselves feminists, read it, and see what it tells you about the motives and insecurities that lead to misogyny, and you’ll be forced to consider what, if anything, might be done to eradicate those. Those of you who consider yourselves non or anti-feminists, read it and see whether this is a vision you would agree with in any way, or not, and why. If you don’t give much of a toss about the gender equality debate one way or the other, read it, because it’s something different, and it’ll make you laugh, and possibly check the prescription of your reading glasses.
Martin tells us that this book is a form of memoir. However I don’t think one would approach is as one would, say, the memoirs of a politician, where the veracity of the occurrences are of some import. What we understand by this statement is: ‘It’s personal’. Of course, all literary works are personal, or what would be the point? The author has something to say, or they wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be writing. We could do worse than remember this comment on the memoir form, from Isabel Allende:
‘A memoir is my version of events. My perspective. I choose what to tell and what to omit. I choose the adjectives to describe a situation, and in that sense, I’m creating a form of fiction.’
To look at it from the other side, one could argue that allfiction is memoir. Loosely, this is T.S. Eliot-esque theory that whatever the author’s superficial subject, they will always be writing about the issues that most deeply trouble them, one way or the other. So, if the author’s father has just died and they don’t mention that at all but are writing about a cricket on a leaf, they’re still writing about the death of their father, and the ethos of those emotions will seep through to the cricket on the page.
The question goes right back to the larger issue of originality and creativity. Can humans really give ‘to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’, or is it the author’s job to accumulate those nebulous concepts that none can see nor name, but nevertheless do exist, and give them a solidity that bears scrutiny and exchange? And is this process more akin to memoir, or fiction, or are those labels superfluous when it comes to transmuting concepts into words?
It was one of the remits of my work on the novel to try and answer Martin’s question: how can a pre-sexual revolution narrative be presented honestly to a modern audience? Much like the previous remit, I’m afraid I don’t think I answered this. Namely, because I don’t think it needs answering. Most of my personal study is dedicated to Early Modern writing (that is, 16thand 17thcentury), and that’s well and truly prior to the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Societal mores vary vastly not only over time but also across space and circumstance. If the author describes the scene well enough, all those differences are clear to be seen, and there is need no explanation. This is not to say that readers don’t feel the need to do seek for one.
I’ll give one example, from a Shakespeare play you may well know: The Taming of the Shrew. Here the main male character refers to his new wife as ‘my goods, my chattels; she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,’ as he carries her off forcibly to a honeymoon from hell. Critics often explain the misogyny of The Shrew as a combined result of a young, hot-headed playwright and the different standards of the time.
While both of these may have weight, it’s often overlooked that the play aroused as mixed responses in contemporary audiences as it does today. Response-plays and follow-ups show that some Elizabethan audience members thought the balance of power swings the other way half the time, some laughed at Kate’s plight and thought it an outcome well deserved, and some were mortified by the whole experience. In 1897 George Bernard Shaw wrote of the play that ‘The last scene is altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.’ However in 1971 Germaine Greer wrote, of the same passage, that ‘Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written.’ The reader’s take on the piece, and what they come away from it with, is, it seems, capable of transforming the import of these depictions of the ‘gender wars’ 180 degrees.
So, I’m offering no excuses, and no interpretations of the outrageous departures in Short of Lovefrom what we might call acceptable gender logic. Instead, I’d like to ask the reader: Why are these departures there? Are the departures themselves trying, in a circuitous fashion, to return to some sort of harmony? I’ll reach back to Allende to remind us of the reality of writing in the memoir form:
‘In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons.’
Demons are most certainly confronted in this novel, and not solely those of the author, but some of those of our society and collective consciousness as well. Whether they are conquered, allied with, or merely outed, I’ll leave you as readers to decide.
One thing I think is extraordinary about this book is the peculiar relationship the reader has with the author. It’s written in the third person and from the perspective of the main character Tom. This is normally called Third Person Limited, but Short of Lovetakes the format to such a height that one would almost be tempted to give it a new category of Third Person Very Limited. Luckily we don’t have to do this as there is already an alternate description: the concept of the unreliable narrator.
Which takes me to the question of the novel’s genre and place among literary works. I’m assuming most of you haven’t read it yet. I’d describe it as a combination of Tom Jones, Catcher in the Rye, and St Augustine’s Confessions, with a Beatles soundtrack. Tom Jonesfor the rapscallion, picaresque aspect, and endless parade of jaw-dropping events. Catcher in the Ryefor the unabashed use of raw unacceptability, dragging unsavoury things out of the shadows and into common view for scrutiny. And the Confessionsfor the overall aim (I think) of creating a malleability and a weakness in the reader, via the abasement and frankness of the creator, towards a consideration of acceptance and reconciliation. There is nothing in Tom Archer that a reader can possibly throw at him more than he has already thrown at himself. Whether Tom Archer is aware of this or not, is a grey area. We can’t know the answer, but the speculation on the subject in the reader’s mind is, I think, the key to that dialogue of compassion that might in some form lead to conclusions much more harmonious than might be suggested in the text.
There is a strong Quixotic strain throughout the novel. Misguided though he is, Tom Archer is in his own way a hopeless romantic, with as warped a sense of the reality of human relationships as Cervantes’ windmill-tilting knight. Although Tom himself focuses obsessively on relations (or the failure of relations) with the opposite sex, the reader-eye-view sees the miscommunication is a global issue for this character. Like Don Quixote, the prize he is supposedly chasing is, to the greatest part, a construct of his own imagination, and shaped to meet what he perceives to be his own needs. Vicki is his ever-unattainable Dulcinea, whose very function is, by definition, to be unattainable. Here, however, the similarity might end, because while Don Quixote’s notions of chivalric code teach him that this is simply the way life is and always ought to be, Tom Archer’s projections of ideal femininity and how these should interact with his narrative ricochet back onto the object of his desires in a spiral of resentment and indignation. And where does this leave the reader? Perhaps, I would suggest, taking a step back, and viewing Tom’s impulses in the light of the effect of unregistered isolation from society as a whole, and how easily this might be directed into a single-minded channel: in this case, an exasperated sexual howl. Is this a useful dialogue to have? Yes, I would say.
In short, I would like to thank Martin again for the opportunity of being part of such an interesting project. The world of publishing is a difficult one, and Chance and Lady Luck play a huge role in determining which authors are remembered, and which not. However I do know that this work has some salient and novel characteristics which, should they fall into the right hands, could be noted down as significant steps in the course of literary narrative. I’d encourage you to take a punt on it, and be in on that first wave that gets to respond to a text before all the other critics with fat weight behind their names come in on the game. You get first pick. So if you haven’t already done so, go and buy the book.
Thanks very much for listening.