Tea and technology


Writing is mostly a solitary occupation. Even if you are writing with a cat on your lap, it’s still down to you to get the words onto the paper or the screen. The cat’s not going to do it. But it sure as hell will provide a distraction, whether it’s actually sitting on the keyboard or not. There are plenty of ways you can happily waste time with a cat – whether it’s a real cat or a virtual cat. And it’s not just cats …

Who’s boss?

Before you even start, tackle the technology. While we curse it and say how much time it wastes, it’s not it. It’s us. Your computer hasn’t got teeth. It’s not going to bite if you don’t look at your emails (though of course it can get back to you in other sneaky ways). So first, turn of the bling or ping or whatever noise your computer makes when an email comes in. If, like me, you also have a distracting little box that appears top right, see if you can kill it. You may not be able to do so, but you can try.

Step away from the phone

And then there’s the phone. Once you’ve set a writing time – I write best in the mornings – don’t answer the phone. There are such things as answering machines. And don’t fret; if it’s urgent they’ll ring back. Even better, tell all your friends, your mother, the cat, the dog, your neighbour that you never answer the phone between, for instance, eight and twelve a.m. Be specific. If you are someone who just has to answer, then unplug the wretched thing, if it’s a landline. With mobiles, turn off the sound but shove it away somewhere. Like in a drawer, on top of the fridge. Anywhere where you can’t see it. (Only don’t forget where you put it!)

The devil incarnate – a.k.a. the Internet

Looking for inspiration – always a good excuse – I decided to do some ‘research’ for this post. So I Googled and found much more than even I had bargained for. Just one of the suggestions offered had no less than thirty five new ways to waste time or to find inspiration, if you prefer to think of it that way. That’s the delight and the curse of the web. A true double-edged sword. But I wouldn’t be without it. Nevertheless, it is madly distracting so, if possible, restrict your ‘research’ to evenings.

How many cups of tea does it take to write a novel?

We’ve all been there. You’re a bit stuck. A bit bored maybe. “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea.” Or maybe it’s coffee. Whatever. It’s still a distraction. It can bugger up your chain of thought, even if you weren’t aware of having a train of thought at that particular moment. When you are writing it’s essential that you keep your bum on the seat. Even if that means spending hours staring at the screen. It sounds weird, but by some sort of strange alchemy if you just stay there, something happens. Eventually. (You don’t have to remain immobile all the time, some pacing and stretching is allowed. And the occasional cup of tea.)

Rules are meant to be broken

The thing people often forget to say is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. There’s not a lot of fun in breaking a rule if you don’t know you are breaking it. And there are of course exceptions to any rule, provided you know it in the first place. And as I’ve said before, it’s probably better to make a cup tea or get a coffee than put something in the Google search bar. A cup of tea might take ten minutes. Make that fatal click and you’ll be there for hours. Trust me. I’m a writer.

“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”


The quote comes from Siegfried Unseld; I don’t know what the publisher in question did to annoy Bonaparte. And I’m not suggesting we go that far. But to any writer who’s received a rejection – especially of the dismissive and unhelpful ‘not right for our lists’ variety – will perhaps feel a twitch of sympathy. Rejections are the warp and weft of a writer’s life. You have to deal with them; no matter how ill judged or unfair you believe them to be. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cannot hide my pleasure when publishers get it so wrong.

J.G. Ballard, whose distinctive novels and short stories spanned over two decades, certainly made an impression on one publisher. But not in a good way. Commenting on the manuscript of Crash, Ballard’s iconic and controversial novel, one publisher wrote ‘the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Max Beerbohm, submitting the manuscript for his classic Zuleika Dobson, was damned for being too fond of himself although he ‘has never reached any high standard in his literary work.’

The characters in another classic, Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, were found to be ‘so deadly and monotonously dull … so depressing … that they make a most fatuous assembly to find between the covers of a book.’ Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was turned down as it ‘contains unpleasant elements.’ H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was refused on the basis that it was ‘an endless nightmare.’ George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected, for a variety of reasons, by several publishers. One was afraid of that the choice of pigs as the ruling class would upset the Russians. Another, missing the point entirely, said that ‘it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’

Of course cultural attitudes played a part in some infamous rejections, so one does have to allow for that. When D.H. Lawrence submitted the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was urged not to publish ‘for your own good.’ Indeed its first edition was published privately in Italy in 1928. When the full unexpurgated version was finally published in the U.K., in 1960, Penguin Books were immediately put on trial under the new obscenity laws. The publisher won this infamous case by successfully proving the book to be a work of literary merit.

Cultural and historic considerations aside, many extraordinary works of fiction have fallen foul of publishers down the years. War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, Lolita, Moby Dick, Catch 22, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Ipcress File – the list goes on and on and on. Many illustrious authors – among them Kipling, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all been recipients of excoriating criticism. Luckily for us they persisted and found publishers who had a greater vision.

We’ll all get rejections, some of us more than others. Writers whose first novels are welcomed with open arms are rarer than hens’ teeth. Nevertheless, seasoned and proven writers still receive their fair share of setbacks. The only thing a writer can do is just go on. Persevere. Don’t’ give up and, next time you get that unwelcome letter, just remember that you are in good company. If you can, try to get hold of a copy of Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard. It’s this book that I relied on to write this post. I cherish my copy, especially since to buy it brand new could cost nearly £60. However, second had copies are still available, for pennies.

A subtle delight

LittleEgyptCoverI’ve never been disappointed in anything that Lesley Glaister has written and ‘Little Egypt’ is no exception. Rich, deep, deceptively simple, enthralling and horrific by turns, it is beautifully observed and written – a subtle delight. The two timescales – 1920s and circa 2000 – are handled in such a way as to be totally believable. Two different world’s experienced by one young girl become an old woman. I was going to say bag lady, but she’s not exactly that.

These days social services would almost certainly swoop on Little Egypt and the two youngsters but things were very different in the 1920s so that the situation is entirely credible. As are the plot’s various twists and turns. I was constantly surprised, for the book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely. The writing is so skilful that, although the clues are there I, for one, didn’t see many of them coming, though the tension throughout had me in no doubt that something horrific was going to happen. It just wasn’t what I expected.

The book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely.

This is another book where the characters are wonderfully drawn. I sympathised with poor Osi and, to some extent, Victor. However, my heart went out to the responsible and feisty Issy and also to loyal and put upon Mary. I’d have had the selfish, self absorbed parents in court – though their behaviour would not have been considered as reprehensible then as now – and yet their actions and behaviour is entirely in character.

As both readers and writers know, it’s extremely difficult for a writer to sustain tension right to the very end, to finish well and satisfactorily. Here again, by quietly and almost unnoticeably introducing some crucial facts early on – the lawyer, the trust fund, the greed of the corporation that owns the supermarket – Lesley Glaister gets over some possible, potential stumbling blocks. I particularly admire the fact that she has both the skill, and courage, to leave some loose ends, adding even more credibility to a wonderful story.

Intensely irritating but ultimately endearing

The Receptionist

You know how it is when you know someone who is intensely irritating. They drive you nuts. But just sometimes, unless they are real monsters, you find that inexplicably you get quite fond of them. Even though they still annoy the hell out of you.

Some books are like that.

I love The New Yorker. Or rather I love the idea of it. I haven’t read that many issues though I am familiar with the cartoons; it’s one of those magazines that are part of my childhood and growing up. Like Punch. So I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

Founded in 1925, the magazine covers reportage, commentary, essays, fiction, satire, poetry and cartoons. While reviews and events focus on the cultural life of New York City, it is widely read throughout the world. I have to admit, to my shame, that many of the writers mentioned in The Receptionist are unknown to me. Others, though, are old friends and firm favourites. S.J. Perleman, Peter DeVries, Muriel Spark and James Thurber to mention just a handful. So it was with happy anticipation that I settled down to read

My excitement was short lived. The irritation set in from the very first page with what appeared to be an implausible story. A naïve new graduate from the University of Minnesota takes a temporary job with a film director, who immediately invites her to send in her resumė, which he promptly passes on to the famous New Yorker writer E.B. Wright who agrees to interview her. I’m not doubting it happened – things like that do happen. But the name-dropping and the smug self-satisfaction turned me off straight away.

I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

The interview was ‘unprecedented’. Her attitude to the famous writer patronising – ‘I was overwhelmed with a desire to put the poor man at his ease.’ Her statement that ‘anything would be of more interest’ than the typing pool, is arrogant in the extreme. None of this endeared me to the author. However, I decided to battle on. And it was a battle. I read ‘The Receptionist’ on and off for several months; it felt like a very long six months.

There’s something self indulgent about this book, at least the first half of it. Something self-conscious. In many places all it amounts to is names, famous names, trotted out one after another. As I mentioned, most of the names meant nothing to me but that’s hardly the author’s fault. However, I’d have liked to know more about them, I thought that was what I’d get from reading the book. I didn’t in the main. There were some highlights. I had read most of Muriel’s Spark’s work when I was younger and loved it. So a whole chapter devoted to her had me sitting up and taking notice. I found myself thinking, goodness this bit is actually interesting.

If only she had kept it up.

The book’s covers and no less than four pages at the beginning contain glowing reviews from the likes of The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The New York Journal of Books, The Washington Post and more. At first my impression was that I had been reading a different book. I don’t understand how The New York Journal of Books, for instance, can refer to “verbal dexterity” when some passages are so muddled I had to read them over and over to make sense of them. And when other sections read like a mushy romantic novel and others are plain silly – “how could I ever go to bed with someone who not only misquoted Coward but could dis the song Ingrid was humming just before she said, “Play it, Sam.”? “ You could be forgiven for thinking that was meant to be either funny or ironic. It isn’t. It’s twee.

For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters.

To get back to what I said in the beginning. About getting fond of people even though they continue to annoy the hell out of you. That applies to this author, because if ever a book was its author this one is. I’m going to quote two other reviews because they describe the element that endeared the author to me despite everything. The thing that kept me reading fairly consistently from about half way in. Oprah.com said, “Groth … isn’t a woman to give up and, by the end of the book, she finds her own delightful voice, which is the book’s real pleasure.” And The Boston Globe – “A literate, revelatory examination of self.”

I take issue with the ‘literate’ but apart from that those two quotes describe why I didn’t abandon the book half way through. For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters. To reveal not so much a shallow, self important young girl revelling in her affairs with famous people, but a bright and talented young woman somewhat adrift and needing direction.

Janet Roth was young in an era where men were all powerful and women, on the whole, were wives, housewives, typists or merely decoration. The era brilliantly depicted in the TV series, Mad Men. There were of course a few highly paid and powerful women columnists at the New Yorker in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Writers such as Muriel Spark and Dorothy Parker were also regular contributors. But you can see how a young aspiring writer from the mid-West, with absolutely zero confidence yet abundant feminine charms, could end up spending eighteen years as the receptionist on the eighteenth floor. The writer’s floor. Yet never getting that longed for chance to join them.

Absurdly generous vacation leaves, with pay, plus indulgent working hours also contributed to this extraordinary long and ultimately fruitless employment. However, these conditions also allowed her to take classes and travel widely and all credit to her for keeping up with her studies. She may not have had the confidence or push to get herself the job she wanted. She may have been star struck and wild and self-absorbed, to say the least. But she didn’t give up. She just came at writing a different way. She obtained her Ph.D. in English, became a Fulbright lecturer and Professor Emeritus in English at a New York State university, taught at various other universities and is the author of three books on the literary critic and prolific writer, Edmund Wilson.

So I have to confess I did grow quite fond of her in the end. I certainly admire her courage– her self-analysis is honest an insightful. As to the book itself – it still annoys the hell out of me.