I’ve been thinking a lot recently about authors’ and readers’ relationships – partly because of conversations I’ve been having, and because I’m anticipating a very special reissue which has taken me back to one of the most important author friendships of my life – with the late, great Jan Mark.
We corresponded for many years – before e-mail, before Skype – and even between catch-ups, Jan still wrote cards and letters.
As an editor, some of my author relationships turned into friendships, which is a happy development but not a perquisite. As Diana Athill wrote in Stet:
‘The person with whom the writer wants to be in touch is his readers: if he could speak to him directly, without a middleman, that is what he would do.’
But, she goes on to say:
‘… several (of my authors) have enlarged my life; have been experiences in it in the way, I suppose, that a mountain is an experience to a climber, or a river to an angler …’
Her book is half a memoir of fifty years spent working at Andre Deutsch as one of the most-respected editors in London, and half a series of personal accounts of editing and befriending six notable writers: Mordechai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester (‘It is possible that I am the only person in the United Kingdom who remembers Alfred Chester and his books’), V. S. Naipul and Molly Keane.
I recommend Stet if you haven’t read it – you don’t need to be an editor to learn from it.
Another, younger writer who has spent a lot of time with authors is American John Freeman – formerly of Granta, where he edited the fourth Best of Young British Novelists anthology and now back in the States, editing his own eponymous journal of new writing, Freeman’s.
A few years ago, Freeman published a book which I loved dipping into – How to Read a Novelist: Conversations With Writers – and which I also recommend. Through a series of interviews and sketches, he explores the pleasures of meeting writers face to face:
‘It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.’
And yet he knows the pitfalls. In a candid and electrifying introduction, he writes about his meeting with John Updike (whom Athill must have worked with but who is largely absent from Stet …) – and the lesson he learnt:
‘It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life’s problems.’
Such concerns wouldn’t trouble Francis Plug, ‘author’ of How to Be a Public Novelist:
‘Author events and performances have proliferated … It’s not that authors have suddenly become more extroverted – it’s more a case that their job description has changed … What’s most concerning is that no one is offering us any guidance or tips … That’s why I’ve decided to study the ways of the literary event. The know-how necessary for survival as a public author. This book is a culmination of that.’
He’s selected Booker Prize winners – who are likely to be the best role models – and he criss-crosses London in search of them at events. He gets his pound of flesh when he meets them, asks them to autograph his first editions, and potentially offends with his intrusions into personal and creative spaces. He always gets his ticket price back in glasses of complimentary wine.
You may have gathered that Francis’s book is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In fact, the whole thing is an hilarious spoof by the talented witter Paul Ewen. But it makes serious and interesting observations about professional authorship. Writing is a private activity in a fantasy world, so there’s something odd about wanting it to adhere to the rules of reality. Don’t you think?