Sunday, 26 February 2012

Palliser's Theory

by Ian Marchant

My friend Charles Palliser, a fine literary novelist who has sold books on a commercial scale (notably his masterful ‘Quincunx’) once told me his theory about a sliding scale of writers, with fame at one end, and riches at the other.

‘Think of the most famous writers in the world, those that everyone has heard of; Joyce, Beckett, Yeats etc. Never earned a penny in their lifetimes, not really. Contrast them with the writers you’ve never heard of who sell millions. The trick is to be about halfway in-between.’

I was reminded of the force of Palliser’s Theory last weekend when James Patterson was the subject of the Q&A feature in the Guardian Weekend mag. Who he? He the world’s best selling novelist. I’ve never read a word, but I doubt very much that he’s a great writer. In fact, I bet you that I’m a ‘better’ writer than him.

On what evidence do I base this bold claim? Because I have ‘literary’pretentions, by which I mean I’m attempting to justify every word I write. This ‘and’ is here, that semi-colon is there for a reason. It doesn’t, it can’t, always work. Perfectionism is the enemy of art, and although poets might come closer, a prose writer is pretty much always going to miss the target. But a ‘literary’ writer is at least having a go at getting it right. Patterson, I strongly suspect, isn’t even trying because he doesn’t have enough time, but I don’t think that matters, because his stuff has narrative vim. He is spinning yarns, very profitably, and bloody good luck to him. Trust me, if I could knock out a unit shifting thriller, I’d start today.

For the giants of literature, there never was a split between literary and commercial. Truly great writers like Austen or Dickens or Orwell sweated to get their manuscripts ‘right’; and then sold high numbers because they were also wonderful story-tellers. This artificial distinction grew as a consequence of high Modernism. Virginia Woolf hated the idea of writing for money, just as much as she hated the idea of universal education. She and her circle objected to a literate hoi polloi, because that meant that the ‘white slugs’ (as Mrs Woolf called the working class) might feel that they could understand minds as refined as those of the Bloomsburies, which was not on. Universal education was levelling, and for Mrs Woolf, that was an unbearable thought. Her especial ire was reserved for Arnold Bennett, because he sold so many books that he could afford a steam yacht. She saw what she did as ‘art’, as ‘literature’, and that was something that could only be achieved by the very best quality people.

‘Literature’ is a genre, a sub-set of writing, and admission to the genre is controlled by a small self-selected coterie of critics. The study of English Literature in universities is roughly coterminous with the rise of Modernism. Only critics and academics hold the keys to the doors of ‘literature’. Despite my fretting about getting my books ‘right’, I doubt that I’ll be admitted to the canon, because working class people still aren’t really expected to write. My concerns are not theirs; my voice is common, vulgar, no matter how much I might work on my texts so that I can bear them to be read. Patterson and Brown, however much people might like reading their books in the bath, on holiday, at the end of a long day, could never get through the gates of literature in a billion years. Only time can decide if a writer is truly great, but I suspect that those who make it will be loved by the critics, and sell shed loads of books too. Getting that particular double is just as hard now as it has ever been.

Literature by Ian Marchant:
Something of the Night
The Longest Crawl
Parallel Lines: Or, Journeys on the Railway of Dreams


vicky ellis said...

Thanks for the post Ian. I think we should stipulate that every guest blog comes with a recipe. Preferably one which contains at least 4 eggs.

I'm tempted to say let them have their little club but then they seem to have all the good clubs - you know, the ones that get to make the rules about where the money goes and who gets locked up.

Education is the hoop to elitism but that hoop seems to be shrinking of late. Perhaps in 20 years time Woolf et al will have their wishes granted. There's a cheery thought.

Masses of humans means masses of ideas playing out. Masses of interpretations. Masses of interactions. I'm no statistician but in terms of the Infinite Monkey Theory at least, that's got to be a good thing. If anything, I find the fact that there are millions of us trying to eek a little beauty and sense out of the world an inspiration. If Group Intelligence Theory (thank you Derren Brown) has taught us anything, it's that a hundred people are much more likely to guess the number of sweets in a jar than one literate toff. Let's race the literati to the prize.

Ashley R Lister said...


Great post. Virginia Woolf has just soared in my estimation of her now. I think she will now be my role model.


Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve just posted an article entitled Is no one writing just fiction anymore? which deals with some of these issues but mainly the rise and rise of genre fiction. Like you I consider myself a literary novelist and I say that with a straight face because I believe literary fiction to cover a fairly broad spectrum. No, I’m not the next Beckett despite him being a hero and a major influence, but then neither am I a mere storyteller. Like you I’m a working class lad. I never went to university and I don’t have any creative writing qualification. I’m not even that widely read but I’d like to think I am well read. It wasn’t until I’d written five novels that I even felt confident enough to refer to myself as a novelist but after five it’s hard to argue against that designation despite the fact I still squirm a little in my seat as I write this; it still feels a bit pretentious, a bit not me. I prefer the term ‘writer’ because that’s what I do. I write. I write poems and stories and plays even and I’ve written five novels. Is any of it Literature-with-a-capital-L? As you say that’s for others to decide. My only real regret is that I wasn’t born fifty years earlier or even thirty when there was no Internet and no print on demand and no e-books because a wee quiet bloke sitting in an ex-Council flat in Scotland struggling to start what he expects to be his sixth novel really hasn’t a hope in hell of getting noticed amidst the tidal wave of stuff that’s being churned out on a daily basis. Luckily that’s not why I write but it would be nice to get noticed just a little.