Ask someone with a literature PhD why they did it and you’ll get a grab-bag of answers, from feeling the devil’s shoulder-tap of academic ambition to it seeming like a good idea at the time. I did mine for both those reasons and more, but among my motivations was one that both preceded and outlasted my four-and-a-half years of alligator-wrestling in the name of New Zealand literature: I wanted to become a better writer. In the hope of one day being a novelist, I set myself the task of becoming a critical writing machine, since surely, I thought, one genre could work in the service of another.
This speculation I put to the test in the first month of the new millennium when I took a bite of unofficial leave from working on my PhD in order to see if my critical and analytical faculties could cross the floor: I was going to try and write my novel. I had a first-XV’s worth of characters, a Naked City of stories and my flatmate’s desk to work at. Could it be done? And what would it be like?
My first reaction to novel-writing was that it was a lot like thesis-writing, only not so mobile: less need to go and look up sources, for example. It became an exhilarating process, a marathon for which I felt as if I had long trained. My academic supervisor, whom I had nervously asked to read my novel manuscript, reported back favourably, much more favourably than either of us expected. The experience of writing was equal parts cool distillation and fiery furnace, and the manuscript was in the post to my publisher of choice within three months of its beginning, by which time I had returned to the archives in the hopes of hitting the home straight with my thesis research too.
I knew when I saw the size of the parcel I eventually received from the publisher that the manuscript hadn’t been accepted, which was not exactly unexpected, knowing both my inexperience and the fact that unsolicited manuscripts rarely make the list of publishers’ favourite things. Having grown up reading Peanuts cartoons in which various editors roast Snoopy’s manuscripts over an open fire, I was prepared for the critical worst, but this wasn’t the response I got. There was praise for my prose and some of the detail of setting and characters, but overall, it turned out, this wasn’t enough. There might be too many people in the story; the narrative didn’t cohere; this was a manuscript but not yet a novel.
As much as I wanted to hit the “play again” button and rewrite my manuscript immediately, there was the matter of the thesis, which was itself threatening not to cohere, and which I was of course being funded to write. With some regret, I returned the manuscript to the bottom of my to-do pile in order to finish my thesis. At least, I reasoned, there was comfort in knowing I would have something to be going on with at its end.
It wasn’t quite that simple of course. A colleague at my new teaching job knew this when, on the day I submitted my thesis, he laughed and told me to expect the onset of post-natal depression. The thesis, so easily taken on, was not easily let go, and the accompanying transition from study to workplace made me feel nothing so much as that I had unexpectedly fallen off the back of a ute, en route to an unknown destination. In this environment, the manuscript languished, and when I eventually returned to it, it was with the intentions not so much of an editor as of an arsonist, which is to say, I began again, almost from the ground up. Those characters who survived the cull were not only older and wiser but also less articulate and more wounded than their predecessors. At the same time, the story’s big moments were toned down: a death became an accident, a seduction became a haphazard groping, the Suffolk Coast became Essex. It took longer, too, to rewrite, which made me hopeful that some of the roughness of the manuscript’s initially speedy working might be written out.
The fact you are reading this comment and not the novel means you can no doubt guess what happened next. A second rejection, I knew, was typical of the progress of beginners’ manuscripts in general, even beginners’ manuscripts with merit, but could I overcome my project’s ongoing limitations and my dispiriting lack of writer’s energy for another rewrite? Perhaps it would be better to consign it to the “first novel” bin and start again. I put the manuscript aside in favour of trying a new writing project, but even then I could see the same stylistic problems arising once more: the dramatic stasis, the reliance on dialogue, the narrative reticence. I could also see that I had the skills to spot the problems, but not to fix ’em.
What to do? An agent had returned the manuscript in late 2003 with the recommendation that I seek a professional assessment, and eventually this is what I did. It was an experience that made me more nervous than sending it to a publisher, largely because I knew that nothing would be withheld in the feedback, unlike the brevity of editorial rejection letters. I felt like a member of Novelists Anonymous; my email of approach began, “My name is Megan and I need a manuscript assessment.”
When I got the report I was curious to see what my assessor would identify that I had been unable to put my finger on. I felt somewhat abashed that my considerable literary critical training didn’t seem to have equipped me to fix the manuscript’s problems. This was a break in the system I had never anticipated in the days when I was still a student and hoping to solve at least a portion of the world’s ills with my thesis (at least those world’s ills that relate to insufficiently close reading of Robin Hyde’s poetry). What did a professional writer know that was missing from my understanding?
The answer that came my way can be expressed as “craft”. The way a novelist writes is different from the way an academic literary critic writes, and I was writing as neither one nor the other. By “different” I don’t mean the obvious stylistic differences but the actual process of putting together a narrative or an argument in itself. While school-children may begin the business of literary analysis by writing lists of characters and plot summaries and by discussing the way a novel is paced – whether, for example, it is suspenseful or not – academic literary criticism of the kind that becomes PhDs and journal articles leaves such basics aside, since anyone, with a little practice and experience, can identify a plot. Literary research finds its original work in the difficult details, both inside and outside the text, rarely in the basic building blocks of narrative. In my years of training in the elements of essay writing, I had failed, in whole or in part, to notice that the work I was so committed to writing about was built of blocks different from the work I was producing in response. It was as if I had walked on to a rugby field with a cricket bat, looking for the wicket and not noticing the approaching forwards.
The elements of novel-writing craft that are crucial to the novelist – the constructing of a well-plotted story written with variety and filled with characters whose actions and emotions engage the reader, drawing them into the narrative – are not all of continuous relevance to academic literary criticism, but without them a novelist’s work will be as mine was: no more than a well-written confection, a cake made entirely of icing. A key premise on which my academic practice had been based – that there is much in a text that is not spelled out – worked against me in writing fiction, since what needed to be spelled out, particularly in terms of linear plot and the characters’ emotional narrative, was so faintly implicit as to be hidden from the reader.
The things without which a novel cannot stand turned out to be the things largely left alone by academic literary criticism, and even when I had made the leap from the latter to the former, I was not able to see this without prompting. It was something of an eye-opener to realise that the relationship between academic and creative writing was by no means as symbiotic as I had assumed, and humbling to think that those basics I had left alone as … well, basics, were the things to which I needed to return. My hope is that now, having found the nature of the gap I could previously intuit in only the vaguest of ways, I can continue my journey to the centre of the novel-writing universe by increments more successful than the story so far.
Megan Clayton has a PhD from the University of Canterbury, where she teaches literature and other arts subjects. She is still working on her novel manuscript.