Virginia - right or wrong?
'A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.'
This has to be one of the most famous literary quotes of all time, but I'm sure that most female writers today don't have even one of those luxuries, let alone both. Most of us - for it is only a lucky minority who make enough from their writing to live on - have to concoct our stories as best we can in time carved out of the competing demands of children, jobs, chores and everything else.
I have some money - my salary from my full-time job as an English teacher in an inner London comprehensive school - but that is not quite what Woolf was referring to. Her idea of money, I assume, would have been some sort of private income from family resources or an inheritance maybe. Not money that has to be earned through working 10-12 hour days, 5 days a week during term-time. I'm certainly not complaining - far from it - I'm grateful that I have a job that is as secure as any job can be in our troubled economic times and the reason I retrained as a teacher was to have the holidays to write in. But I must qualify that by saying that if teachers didn't have their holidays, there would be no teachers. It simply is not a job that is sustainable to do if you had to do it 48 weeks a year. You just wouldn't survive. For people who are struggling with one or two teenagers of their own to manage, I offer you the idea of dealing with 120 or more per day, every day. In groups, where all their worst attributes and habits are amplified and magnified. It's monumentally exhausting and generally pretty thankless. But it's work and it pays a salary and and so yes - it's money.
As for a room of her own - I had that luxury for a while - the spare bedroom in my house with my own desk and even space for my sewing machine. But times are tough and the room has been rented out to a delightful Chinese student at the LSE who is writing his dissertation - so now my writing space is squeezed into the corner beside my bed. The sewing machine is back in its box and only came out recently courtesy of my mum's dining room, where I was able to spread out a bit and make a dress for my holiday.
But I digress from actually writing about books. I'm sure there is a link between the two books I want to talk about today and Ms Woolf but I haven't quite put my finger on it yet. So first up, to get the negative over with quickly, I offer The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. I absolutely, categorically hated this book. I was going to buy it one day and then I saw a) the price and b) the labelling next to it that informed me that 'if I only read one book this year, it had to be this one'. Immediately, I walked away from the book. Marketing like that drives me mad. How ridiculous to even begin to think that one book sails so far above all others that it should be accoladed like that. (I could add my feelings about The Miniaturist in here but I won't. That deserves a post of its own.)
Not long after this, a friend lent me her copy of the book so I was able to read it without a) spending any money and b) having to read any more irritating marketing slogans. Despite this, I found the book turgid, overwritten, boring, confusing and frankly unmemorable in every way - except for how much I disliked it. None of the people in it were remotely interesting, likeable or believable... I think you've got the message by now that I do not recommend this book.
But now I remember the link to Woolf. The author of The Truth... was in his twenties when he wrote it and in the acknowledgements, he thanks his 'assistant Denise'. So perhaps we should or could add 'an assistant' to Woolf's list of what one needs in order to write. I'm sure if I had an assistant I'd get more writing done. I guess the only problem is that it might not actually be better writing.
Now, to counter the negativity because I don't really like criticising books or authors, I want to talk about a book I have just read for the second time.
The final book of my holiday when my kindle broke and I had to read whatever was available was the twentieth anniversary edition of Alex Garland's The Beach. I loved this book the first time I read it and I love it again now. I think it's brilliant - but strangely enough the narrator Richard isn't much more likeable than Dicker's main character. He's just cleverer, funnier, more realistic and much, much more interesting. The connection between the two books is that Garland, too, was in his twenties when he wrote it. As far as I know, though, he didn't have an assistant. Whether he had money or a room of his own I do not know either. No matter. If you read one book written by a man in his twenties this year, make it this one.