Other people’s dreams are not interesting, and dreams always make for bad reading in literature, so it’s with reluctance that I relay mine of last night. I’ll be brief. I found myself in an underpopulated indoor swimming pool, of a mid-ranking hotel cum hostel, with, amongst very few others, Helena Bonham-Carter who informed me conspiratorially that it wasn’t a real swimming pool because it served another function. She went to the far corner, and with one of those plastic griddle scoops that allow the water to drain through, came back with a human turd. Later in the dream, she tuned in to my aversion to swimming amongst excreta, and as more of them suddenly became visible down her end, she chased me out of the pool towards the changing room with a fresh one, which I think she intended to fling at me. I was prevented from escaping to the changing room because a baby was lying over the threshold, but then, cornered, I slowly came out of the dream. I told you they don’t make good reading. Which weakly, brings me on to today’s issue. Fips has been a boon, and Dog’s Bowl have been good customers, and Mickey Drover cannot be criticised thus far, but none of them have been able to help me with that which I struggle most: the old lutte de l’ecrivain.
When you’re trying to break through as a writer one of the things that keeps you encouraged, that gives you hope, is to read the books of current writers who are getting published. Celebrity novel writing is in many ways a case of its own, but that genre, for that is what it is, shares many traits with these abject novels. Taking as a given their lack of intellectual heft to consider first, their more prosaic failings: they have a juvenile perspective, they have a lowest common denominator populist appeal; they are riven with inconsistencies; they deploy a contrived and limited vocabulary; they are populated with characters who are inconsistent and lack credibility; they attach significance to bullshit and ignore what counts; and, for me, the acid test, their characters communicate using inauthentic dialogue.
And then, you encounter the people that commissioned them, and suddenly you realise that there is no way in for someone like you; that their agents are no better than the shallow illiterates that they promote. Of course they’re not; it has to be that way. That’s how the useless become revered in the first place.
So then you think, unless you can access the few good agents in the market, which you can’t, because they’re busy with the few good active writers of the moment, that you have to find a back way in. And you discover the world of competitions; short story and flash fiction, things which you once thought were the playthings of others. It turns out it’s a mini-industry, there’s hundreds of them, thousands maybe, all generating this little flow of micro-income to little web-site companies through entry fees to these competitions which presumably keeps them all going, and out of which they offer small prizes, alongside as much recognition as it’s in their power to give. Some of them have monthly prizes; a few, weekly; the odd one, daily. Surely, they can’t all be well contested, you think. Then you wonder whether you should have been wading in these shallows for a while longer, honing your art; that perhaps you can sneak in and plunder a CV-boosting prize unnoticed, then slip away for another round of manuscript promotion, slightly elevated as a writer.
And then the first results arrive and you’re not short listed. Never mind, you were flying high, that competition was for full manuscripts, the next one should be more indicative, £3 entry, £50 first prize, monthly competition, ten runners up with an honourable mention. Go big, adapt your 1,500-word short story from the strongest chapter of your manuscript. Put them to the sword, defy them not to recognise your talent. Blow away the hobby writers and the talentless egos with the sheer undiluted quality of your prose and your massive ideas.
Not even in the first ten. For something as useless as that, a short story about the march of time.
Eventually you find the courage to read the winners. They’re pathetic; some of them aren’t written in recognisable English sentences. And now you know for sure, it’s not about the awful writers, it’s about the even less talented gatekeepers. This must be how it feels to live in a totalitarian state. To be a victim of ever declining standards where there is not a single person of discernment and authority to whom you can appeal.
Yes, my friends, I am in a familiar place. Not quite smart enough to be one of the smart people at the top of the market. Far too good to join in with the constantly recirculated shit at the bottom. Not so much a dreamer as prophet, condemned to live his life treading water in the same swimming pool through which human waste is reprocessed.