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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

On Alexander Chee’s book of essays, which I was prompted to read because he was cited several times on my MA course.

Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.

On Giving Up On a Book

This is not, as you might have guessed from the title, about writing. It’s about reading.

How long should we give a book by even a beloved author, before giving up on it, if we are not enjoying it?

It’s relatively rare for me not to finish a book that I start. There are a few that I took a couple of runs at, having to start again — Ulysses springs to mind. And some that I haven’t finished, and would have to start again: Gravity’s Rainbow, Swann’s Way. I might never bother with either of those again, but you never know.

I’m fairly sure I’ll never get further than the the two or three pages I’ve managed into Finnegan’s Wake. And there’s the odd other one I’ve abandoned. One that I accidentally left on a train, and realised I didn’t care. It was something to do with an excise inspector in Scotland. No idea what it was called or who it was by.

Most of those above are what people would call difficult: something about the style, form, or content makes reading them a challenge. Overcoming that challenge can be rewarding, but we should never feel guilty about abandoning them if we’re not enjoying them, I feel. Reading for pleasure should not be a chore.

But now we come to a strange case. Claire North is an author I like a lot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was great, and so was Touch, which I read the last time I was out of the country.

So I was pleased to get her 84k for Christmas. And I’ve tried to read it twice, but I just can’t get into it. It’s not that it’s boring or hard to read.

It’s that it’s unpleasant.

That probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Lots of books have unpleasant characters, or depict upsetting or hurtful events. Lots of entertainment shows those things, TV, movies, songs…

I have mentioned here before that I don’t really care for dystopias as a subgenre.1 I’m not sure I can easily explain why that is, but they just don’t appeal.

And this is set in one. It’s largely a version of Britain, more or less present-day, but things have gone so far into privatisation, rampant capitalism, and generally Conservative party policies, that everyone knows the value of a human life.

That’s what the title means. That’s how much, in pounds, the rich have to pay to get away with murder. They can do anything else they want, too, as long as they can afford it.

I’m sure it will have a positive, maybe even uplifting, outcome. But I won’t be carrying on with it. I got about thirty pages in on my second time of starting it (only a couple the first time), and it’s just too bleak, too grim, for me to want to spend any more time there.

Maybe it’s partly the times were living in. But it’s not for me.


  1. If that’s the right thing to call them. 

End of Term 2

The status of my masters course at the end of the Easter or Spring term

Here we are at the end of the second term of my masters. In fact, the end of the taught part of the whole thing. Teaching is finished. In the summer term, which starts a month today, We have a series of lectures from various writing teachers and people from the writing and publishing fields. But no more seminars, no workshops, unless we, the students, organise them ourselves.

I have two 5000-word pieces to submit in a month‘s time — one for the Creative Nonfiction module, and the other for the Writing Workshop. After that it‘s just solid writing and editing until I submit my dissertation in September.

That‘s not quite the whole story. I will also have two meetings with my dissertation supervisor. Or actually, supervisors, because we have been assigned two. The reasoning seems to be that more people seeing our work is a good thing. I can certainly see the sense of that. But at the same time I wonder whether we‘ll lose the advantage of continuity. What if the first one recommends some changes, I make them (or at least, integrate their suggestions with my own ideas), and then the second recommends their opposite?

Oh well, it probably won‘t happen, and I‘ll deal with it if it does.

As for the two pieces I‘m submitting in a month, right now I have the required number of words for both. So I have a month to manipulate them, structure them, and make sure they‘re the best words. A process we writers call ‘editing.‘

Astral Zen

Phase one complete, for me. I’m not long back from the vaccination centre (a vacant unit at the Westfield shopping centre, slightly weirdly) where I got my first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. I can feel my immune system surging, boosted with superpowers, and a strange, unearthly calm descend upon me.

I exaggerate. But it feels pretty damn good to have taken this step. I don’t get the next one until June, and it’s not like we’ll be out of the woods even then; not even personally, and certainly not the country or the world. Especially given the panic over a statistically meaningless set of blood clots, and the news today that the UK’s supply is going to be temporarily constrained.

But considering that it’s only just over year since we learned about this virus and the terrible disease it brings, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the scientists and doctors who were able to develop the vaccines so quickly. Not to mention all the NHS staff who are getting it to people.