Semi-fictional character

He was driven to write an acclaimed debut novel in stolen hours, but lecturer, researcher and scholarly biographer Christopher Bigsby is content never to call himself a ‘real writer’

April 12, 2012



Credit: Getty


Today, universities are keen to boast of the writers on their staff, so many flecks of gold glinting in the clear stream of academic life. Even research assessment exercises have had to acknowledge their presence, although I still recall the time when staid English departments, which existed in a cloud of Leavis and sherry, distrusted any writer not safely interred. I once asked my head of department at a Welsh university whether I could teach Graham Greene on the grounds that he was almost dead. Now, real live writers can safely go down to the waterhole, although there are, I suspect, still hyenas around ready to bring down the already wounded.

Some writers are hired by the hour, bright young escorts on the arm of ageing institutions. Others become part of those institutions, learning to become fluent in the new language of Universities Plc as a form of inoculation against more serious diseases. Still others manage to live a double life, switching with ease from the Dr Jekyll of academe to the Mr Hyde of fiction, ostensibly without damaging their souls.

But then, the role of the writer has changed. Once, only Mark Twain and Charles Dickens regarded public performance as a part of their job description, obligingly turning themselves into their characters, gurning for a living. Today, every town, village and hamlet has a literary festival, while newspapers sponsor major events at which writers and celebrities (with, it is hoped by the organisers, an off-peak standard-class return ticket) read from their work as free papers are distributed and the rain beats down on grey tents. In a recent year, one such collapsed on to books piled high, supermarket-like, for those in search of a bargain and indecipherable signature (No dedication please. It lowers the value).

A confession. I publish novels, but very discreetly. For a couple of weeks they occupy a few centimetres of a bookshop shelf. Because of my last name, the metre and a half of Maeve Binchy books next to mine breathe in for a brief moment before breathing out again as my work disappears. The waters still. The world moves on. I barely have time to go in and turn them face out. When I first consulted Amazon I thought I had sold a million copies until I realised that that was my ranking.

I don’t want to appear over-modest. My first, Hester, won the McKitterick Prize and a later one, Beautiful Dreamer, was an American Library Association Notable Book winner in the US, whatever that may mean. Notable for what and to whom? This does not, though, translate into wealth or even many readers. The fact is that most novelists live in something approaching penury, or would if they did not have other jobs. I do. It is a job that involves me writing other books, as well as teaching, administering, running a research centre and etc. In other words, I work in a university where Alexei Stakhanov might have felt at home, except that my colleagues and I actually enjoy what we do, which has always been the vulnerability of university teachers.

I came to novel-writing late. W.G. Sebald was 46 before, chafing at the self-denying ordinances of academic writing, he published Vertigo. The Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson was 47 before he felt “mature enough to dare” to take on the challenge. I suppose I felt a combination of those things and did not really believe what I was doing. For the first one I rose at 6am and worked for two hours, never rereading the previous day’s work and not explaining to my wife what I was doing for fear that I was doing nothing. She thought I was going strange, or stranger. When I finished, I pressed the print button and withdrew to watch television. I never changed a word and neither did the publisher to whom it was sold within a week. There was talk of movie rights being sold (until Demi Moore’s execrable film version of The Scarlet Letter was announced, my novel being a prequel to that book).

I thought that was how things went. It is not. Later ones required revisions, from me and my editor, and there are a couple I would happily retrieve and ask St Peter to ignore. It wouldn’t be difficult. I probably know most of the purchasers by name. I was surprised once again, though, when I wrote one - the one declared Notable - in 13 days, with an additional 14 days to revise. That has not happened again, and won’t. I wrote at such speed only because I wanted to know what happened next.

While I was writing my biography of Arthur Miller I was also publishing other books, including two novels. Perhaps it is like soldiers breaking step going over a bridge for fear that a regular beat might create a destructive harmonic. Or perhaps I lack the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time. I did once catch myself watching television, listening to the radio and reading a book at the same time. But I had models of real writers who moved from critical to creative work, if that distinction means anything, with consummate ease. One colleague was Malcolm Bradbury and another Sebald. I was and am in awe of both of them.

A while ago I co-wrote a couple of television plays - The After Dinner Game and Stones - and a radio series, Patterson, with Malcolm (Antonia Fraser was the only person I have met who thought this funny, but then she did listen in the bath), and we were writing another when he died. As we wrote he was wearing an oxygen mask and I still recall him laughing at his own jokes. For much of his career, he balanced his academic work with novel writing, as did David Lodge. Read their work and you can see how the one fed the other. Eventually, though, both laid the former aside in favour of the latter. I remember Malcolm’s response when a research assessment panel described his work as “insufficiently paradigm shifting”. No wonder he chose freedom.

There was a time when British passports required you to identify your profession. I was always fascinated by the moment when someone chose to describe themselves there as a writer. It plainly did not require the imprimatur of Dr Leavis. It was a statement about him- or herself. Having spent a fair proportion of my life interviewing writers (for the BBC, the British Council and here at the University of East Anglia), I know what real writers are like. I would never call myself a novelist or a television playwright, although I have written both. I would never call myself a biographer, although, to my surprise, I have written a two-volume biography. Those titles, it seems to me, are earned by those for whom this is essentially what they do. I am just someone whose books can occasionally be briefly glimpsed, Cheshire cat-like, alongside Maeve Binchy (who was herself once a teacher), and which are liable to be pulped by publishers rather than incurring storage costs. I no longer rise at 6am. My wife, though, still thinks me strange - but for entirely other reasons.

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