Lanying was nagging me to finish my novel again this morning. She didn’t know that I’d been writing for a few hours while she was asleep. “You have to publish it while the technology is current,” she said. She meant the social networking sites through which the characters get to know one another. “Technology moves so fast.”
But the relationships in my novel aren’t tied to the technology. It’s the relationships that interest me, not the media through which the characters communicate. I have never been much interested in novels that try to catch a trend.
I am writing about modern romance, which these days is conducted over the internet using blogs, networking sites, instant chat, SMS and Twitter. These things do change the dynamics of relationships. Nowadays it is so easy to be unfaithful. It is so easy to get your desires fulfilled. You can have an affair with someone in another country just as easily as with someone in another town. Novelists have to take account of all these things if they are writing a love story today. But infidelity and inconstancy have always been a feature of romantic relationships. Technology hasn’t changed the way people feel.
In some ways my novel is a bit like a European version of Sex and the City but I can’t stand Sex and the City, although I’ve seen nearly every episode at least twice. Lanying was telling me one of the plot lines in Candace Bushnell’s latest novel this morning and I thought it was riddled with the same moral vacuity as the TV series. None of the characters in my story would express moral outrage at the loss of a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes during a visit to a friend’s party.
I like to think my novel has more in common with Middlemarch.
I have always felt an affinity with writers like Joseph Conrad and George Eliot who took up writing novels late in life. Even at the age of 19 I never anticipated being able to write anything worthwhile until I was at least 40.
Conrad and Eliot are giants of literature so it is easy to forget how hard they struggled to get their work written and published. George Eliot’s first draft of Middlemarch concerned only Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor, whose pretty young wife was, like Carrie Bradshaw, more interested in shoes than science. Her extravagance nearly bankrupted him and he had to sacrifice his academic interests in order to pay the bills. Yet George Eliot couldn’t find the right form for this promising material and started writing a different story. This was the story about Dorothea Brooke, whose aspirations towards spiritual and emotional fulfilment came into collision with grim reality in the suffocating person of her scholarly husband, Edward Casaubon.
When she eventually decided to join the two stories together with additional material about Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and the financier Nicholas Bulstrode, she realised she needed four volumes instead of the usual three. The proposed publishing scheme of half-volume bimonthly parts would drive up the total cost to two pounds, which was double what readers normally paid for an instalment novel like those of Dickens and Thackeray.
Yet the publisher agreed, and the world is grateful.
The themes that are present in Middlemarch are still very much relevant today and it is acknowledged to be among the best novels ever written by anyone interested enough to compile such a list. This is why you should always write the novel you want to write, not what the publishers ask for or what someone tells you is fashionable.
My novel is not as good as George Eliot’s, of course, but it is, like hers, a medium for serious social, psychological and moral enquiry and, I like to think, quite a bit funnier too.
Another writer who inspires me is William Shakespeare. There is so much good material in his plays. These words spoken by Troilus and Cressida and written four hundred years ago still resonate with humour, pathos and wicked irony and are more interesting to me than anything in Sex and the City.
TROILUS. O, let my lady apprehend no fear: in all Cupid’s pageant there is presented no monster.
CRESSIDA. Nor nothing monstrous neither?
TROILUS. Nothing, but our undertakings; when we vow to weep seas, live in fire, eat rocks, tame tigers; thinking it harder for our mistress to devise imposition enough than for us to undergo any difficulty imposed. This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.
CRESSIDA. They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one. They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?
TROILUS. Are there such? such are not we: praise us as we are tasted, allow us as we prove; our head shall go bare till merit crown it: no perfection in reversion shall have a praise in present: we will not name desert before his birth, and, being born, his addition shall be humble. Few words to fair faith: Troilus shall be such to Cressid as what envy can say worst shall be a mock for his truth, and what truth can speak truest not truer than Troilus.