Giles Coren’s first and so far only novel, Winkler, was published in 2005. He got a £30k advance, it was slated in reviews, it won a Bad Sex Award, and combined hardback and paperback sales barely nudged the 1000 mark. He retired hurt, not to mention baffled, and stuck to non-fiction.
Ten years later he felt brave enough to make a documentary about it. Links have changed since I first saw it, but search “Giles Coren my failed novel” and you’ll find it. It’s really quite touching as you see the penny begin to drop. He speaks to the reviewers who had slated it. He listens in on a book club tearing it apart. He takes the first chapters to a creative writing course workshop. He tries rereading it himself and finds it unbearable. (He can’t get through the Bad Sex Award-winning passage without breaking down into laughter.) He listenes in awe to the likes of David Mitchell and Jeffrey Archer as they describe their highly disciplined writing habits, and admits to the latter that he had basically been lazy.
And he comes to the conclusion that this was the first novel everyone has – the one that should be written and then spend the rest of eternity in a trunk in the attic. Only, because he was Giles Coren, his got sold for a £30k advance. You sense that even he feels the injustice of this. No one likes being done a favour.
But here’s the thing. Coren was born in 1969. He’s in his late 40s, but I can’t imagine his discoveries and revelations being news to anyone past their late 20s or even late teens. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been spoiled by growing up in the science fiction community, where expertise and experience flow like milk and honey. I read Dave Langford’s columns in 8000 Plus. I went to Milford. I jostled with the large crowd trying to get through the narrow doorway of Interzone acceptance. I knew it took hard work. I knew that if you didn’t think this was your best yet then you didn’t send it in. How did anyone not know that?
Conclusion: everyone should be an sf fan.
One thing Coren doesn’t do is confront his agent or his editor of ten years ago to ask what the hell they thought they were doing, letting it be published in the first place. They must have known it was rubbish. Sadly, we can probably guess the answer: he was Giles Coren and they assumed it would sell. You can’t blame them for the commercial realities of life.
The programme ends on a high note with Coren talking to William Nicholson, who is in his late sixties, the winner of many awards, and who thinks he’s just about getting the hang of it now.
The one drawback of the entire show is that for a terrible five minutes I found myself warming to Jeffrey Archer.
Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com