‘Your Lovely Books’ by Margaret Drabble

drabble 2aI still wonder why I became and remain a writer, and even when I have gone through the usual justifications- a flexible career for a woman with children, a love of reading and of literature, and, with time, an ingrown habit of production- I find myself puzzled about the deeper choices I must have made. It’s easier to say why I didn’t become a writer than why I did.

I certainly don’t write to entertain, although I am pleased when readers tell me they have found my books enjoyable. I well remember a slight sense of alarm I felt when I was receiving an award from the hands of the late Queen Mother. I sat through the long ceremony until it was my time to step forward, mesmerized by the fact that this elderly woman was managing to stand, in what I think are called (in this case appositely) court shoes, for hour after hour, with a piece of sticking plaster conspicuously attached to one of her ankles. This was in 1980, when I was 40 and she was 80. I was impressed by her stamina and by the sticking plaster. When I went up to receive my medal, what she said to me was ‘Thank you so much for all the pleasure you have given to so many people with your lovely books.’ This was an impressively anodyne statement to which it would be hard to take exception, but the fact that I remember it so clearly means that I think I did.

I do not write to give pleasure. And I don’t write for riches or glory. My expectations of making money have always been set realistically low, allowing for some agreeable surprises- the advance on my first novel was £25, and I can now hope for (though not count on) a bit more than that. I’ve made a good living, and that’s in itself surprising. As for glory- writing has never presented itself as an easy path to personal fame. I didn’t want or expect to become a ‘celebrity’, and although I’ve enjoyed some of the side effects of being successful, principally in terms of travel and making friends and meeting people, it’s never been an aim. I’ve turned down many opportunities in television and the media, because I increasingly realise that public recognition, for most people, brings as much annoyance as delight. I like to be able to shuffle along the street or sit on the bus without anyone pointing or whispering.

I know quite a lot of people who can’t do that.

So why do I do write, and why do I go on doing it? It’s not always enjoyable, it’s not always rewarding. So why?

I write to work things out. I write to make sense of life and, increasingly, of death. I write as an exploration. And if readers wish to accompany me, that’s company on a lonely journey.

My books are not very lovely. They are disorganised, often unintentionally untidy and experimental, at times sad and painful, almost always unresolved. But I hope they are not boring, and that hope implies that I do have some wish to ‘entertain’, or at least to keep the attention of my fellow sojourners.

I don’t despise the entertaining novel. The Queen Mother, who owned a lot of horses, enjoyed the works of her onetime jockey friend Dick Francis, who wrote thrillers about horse racing. That’s not my genre of escapism. I have read and re-read many classic thirties detective stories, and have recently, in the wake of a stretch of hard intellectual labour, galloped through several violent best selling thrillers by American author Lee Child. (I was pleased to learn that Samuel Beckett spent a great deal of time reading Agatha Christie, in English and in French.) But I do expect more of serious fiction than entertainment, and feel uncomfortable, for example, with the pleasure I take in the immensely enjoyable Anthony Trollope, whose perennially popular work is comforting rather than challenging. He does ask questions, but you can really rely on him to fudge the answers, and that’s why he’s such a comfort. Angus Wilson, never a comforting writer, though a very sharp and bold and witty one, compared him to fruit cake. Which is not unlike fudge.

I get annoyed by the circular and pointless debate about the status of the many genres of genre fiction, and why it is underrated. It isn’t. It is what it is. I hate the phrase ‘literary fiction’ (though I was amused by the journalist who coined the phrase ‘faux literary fiction’). I don’t like the phrase ‘debut novel’ either: what’s wrong with ‘first novel’?  This is all market talk and market think. Those who write for the market will die with the market.

I write to find out, to explore ways of living and ways of dying, to test the possible, to guess at the future. And it is my great good fortune to find that others are willing to accompany me on the way.


© Margaret Drabble June 2015






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