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Reply to: A forest of reasons not to write a novel

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Replying to: A forest of reasons not to write a novel

Say, are you writing a novel at the moment? Oh now, go on, don’t be shy, you’re not alone. Well, you are alone, obviously, in the sense that we are all of us alone on this long lurch down the darkling trail between the cradle and the grave, and also in the sense that writing a novel, if you do it properly, is as lonely an occupation as you could choose that doesn’t involve a single-handed sea-going circumnavigation of the world, or creating a centre of excellence at the SABC, or being a serial killer or a mime.

(Which makes me wonder: why are mimes so undesirable as husbands? Unlike the rest of us with our couches and TVs, you’d imagine at the end of a long hard day of work they’d probably come home and want to talk. Ladies, you don’t know what you’re missing.)

But still, if you’re writing a novel, or thinking or talking about writing a novel, you can be comforted or dismayed, depending on your personality, by the thought that almost everyone else seems to be doing it too. It’s like Paris in the 1920s out there, only more middle-aged and without the cheap cost of living. If each unpublished word currently sloshing around desktop folders titled ‘Novel’ were a droplet of water, we’d all be knee-deep and complaining how CNN doesn’t care about floods in the Third World.

But why is this Sandy-sized storm of aspirant novelising happening now, at this moment in history, when the closest our fractured modern culture has to a consensus – other than that everyone loves Hashim Amla and that carbohydrates are the enemy – is that we are in the fast-falling twilight of the novel, and that when our generation passes it will take with it such curious notions as dressing for dinner or watching movies without superheroes in them or sitting down with strange, anachronistic exercises in slow-gratifying, attention-demanding, long-form fiction?

It takes a long time to write a novel, and then even longer to learn to do it well, time that would be better spent loving your family or reading a book or drinking beer in the dappled sunshine, and at the end of it, even in the unlikely event that more people will read it than will ‘like’ your Facebook status saying ‘Woo-hoo! It’s finished!’, you can expect next to nothing in terms of elevated social standing or enhanced sexual attractiveness or cash. And yet, defying all reason, against their own self-interests, like a poor person voting for Mitt Romney, people still do it, and as much as I’d like to mock them for their self-importance and delusion and plain annoyingness, I can’t, because I’m one too.

I have a thousand good reasons for not writing a novel: I am idle and I like money, I have embarrassingly little of moment to say about race or post-colonial identity or the injustices of the past, and there’s nothing in my childhood that strikes me as interesting enough to inflict on anyone I’m not sleeping with. I also don’t know enough about trees.

(Have you noticed this? Real novelists know all about trees. They can sauce up a landscape with some casually mentioned tree names and give sly verisimilitude to a scene by simply invoking a shrub or dropping the scent of a bloom. Some flashy types throw in the subtle details of a herbaceous border or some tangled intricacy of exotic undergrowth. Ah, that way a Booker lies. Me, I could probably just about tell between a baobab, a Christmas tree and a triffid, but only if the experts had already strung tinsel on one of them. I once, in training to write a novel, bought a copy of How to Identify Trees in Southern Africa by Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk (no relation to each other), but nothing will stick. I can’t distinguish between a trifoliolate leaf and one that’s palmately compound, or stem spines and prickles. I certainly can’t judge between one form of pathogenic chlorosis and another, and a tree’s bark is even worse than its blight.

I’ve even considered writing science fiction novels set in a post-arboreal future wasteland, but besides not caring for science fiction, I can’t shake the sneaking fear that one character must at some point look out over the ashen landscape, swirled and scarred as though with giant fingertips, and muse, ‘I miss the trees: the poplars and the oaks, the acacias and euphorbia, the wide-leaved water figs, the camel’s foot and climbing numnum.’ How could I ever write that without feeling like a fraud?)

No, there’s a scad of reasons not to write novels, not least that the effort of trying to do so makes me doubt and revile myself and despise the English language, yet I’m drawn back to the fantasy of it, swirling round the void of those lost hours like a soap sud circling a sink-hole. I am currently in a given-up phase – ‘The world doesn’t need another writer,’ I told myself in the mirror this morning, ‘it needs another reader’ – but I hope you don’t follow my lead.

Perhaps it is just a form of delusion or narcissism, but there are worse ways of being delusional and narcissistic than trying to forge from language something simultaneously real and imaginary, something that – if it comes out right – will make the world at once larger and more beautiful. Maybe, in these days of connectedness and status updates, the novel is still that thing that best offers the promise of sharing our inner worlds and curing the nagging, unshakeable loneliness of not being read.

Or maybe writing novels is just a mad, doomed, pointless occupation, like test cricket or miming or being good at general knowledge, but it’s a better world in which people are still playing test cricket and writing novels and trying to remember things. Not miming though. They should stop miming.

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