Inbetween marking HAT tests, doing admissions administration and teaching, I’m reading Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel by the Australian master-novelist Peter Carey, which narrowly failed to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. All names have been changed, but it’s basically a fictional account of the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville’s journey to the
, which inspired him to write the seminal Democracy in America (1835 & 1840). USA
Reading Parrot and Oliver has reminded me of something my friends who write/publish fiction talk about, and which the novelist Zadie Smith even lectured on last year – the fact that novelists construct their books in two radically different ways. Some plan everything out (plot etc.) meticulously beforehand; others (like Smith) literally just sit down and write and see what happens. I have a very strong hunch that Peter Carey falls into this latter category – the opening scenes in a Normandy post-revolutionary chateau, and in a radical printers’ workshop in the wilds of Dartmoor, are gripping, but I increasingly have the uncomfortable sense that Carey is improvising as he goes along, and losing momentum. It feels at the moment as if he and the reader are stuck in a lacklustre, early 19C
, waiting for a plot to present itself. New York
The notion that one can just sit down and write a book, without planning, is absolutely horrifying to a history tutor. When undergraduates sheepishly admit that they didn’t write a detailed plan for their weekly 2,000 word essay, we given them solemn homilies on why this is a terribly Bad Idea. A historical monograph which had no plan would literally disintegrate somewhere after page 5, under the sheer weight of unstructured information, unconnected analyses, and the absence of a big picture. When writing my book (Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland, on a Polish royal cardinal who died in 1503), not only did every chapter have long typed-up plans & crammed A4 sheets of source references I was going to use, but there was even a pencil diagram showing how the argument of the book as a whole would interconnect. I mention that not as a good model (it's probably not!), but as an example of how meticulous/obsessive historians can be about planning. Evidently some writers find that Calliope and Erato, the wild muses of poetry, will carry you along headlong in creative inspiration; Clio, the muse of history, clearly needs a bit more help and mundane props like Plans.