We have a literary festival on here at the moment and I got quite excited about it and booked up for a couple of events. The one I most wanted to go to took place this afternoon and was supposed to feature Salley Vickers and Rebecca Abrams, two contemporary novelists in conversation. So, my husband and I went along to Newnham College where the event was being held and left plenty of time for the journey. All my department meetings used to take place in Newnham and I tell you, that building is ninety percent corridor. There seem to be no large reception rooms at the front of Newnham, instead you inevitably find yourself trailing through a Kafka-esque box of corridor that snakes ahead to infinity, regularly punctuated by swing doors, until you feel you must surely have entered a time warp. Photocopied notices with optimistic arrows on them say ‘This Way To The Meeting!’ until they lose all credibility. Today was no exception, as we joined a long line of women, almost marching in rhythm, like one of those old caravans of migrants crossing the plains. I was beginning to think I should have brought a thermos flask and some Kendal mint cake for my husband when finally we crossed the threshold into the fourth dimension and found ourselves in the reception area of a conference hall. ‘Am I going to be the only man here?’ my husband grumbled, and indeed it was a markedly feminine gathering. Only one important woman was missing: Newnham’s relentless supply of photocopied notices now informed us that Salley Vickers was sadly unable to make the event due to ill health. A very over-excited publicist was reciting on a sort of internally recorded loop how she had come down with an eye infection. She (the PR person) was wearing a distinctly arty sort of trouser suit and scarlet-framed spectacles and absolutely screamed officialdom from every pore. I would be almost comforted to think these people got their energy from drugs, but no, they may just be born that way.
I will admit that it took me half the meeting to get over the disappointment as I’d really been looking forward to hearing Salley Vickers speak. Perhaps it was just my bad mood but initially the meeting did not seem promising. I don’t go to many of these kinds of gathering because I find it immensely hard to take things in aurally. If I’m supposed to sit and just listen, everything distracts me. The people sitting directly behind me were having a delightfully bitchy conversation about a recent appointment in a history faculty somewhere (they had chosen the wrong person, naturally, and one of the couple was able to make a comprehensive list of said chosen candidates faults), and then there were the latecomers, including the publicity woman, who sat right at the back and instantly struck up the kind of whispering chat that is all sibilant hiss. But I may also have been put off by the reading from Rebecca Abram’s novel, based on the life of the 18th century doctor who found the cure for post-childbirth infections, which I just knew would be gory. Why do authors always pick the most gruesome bits to read aloud? I was taken back in time to the conference I had attended just outside Los Angeles. Over lunch we were read to from a story about postcolonial war atrocities, and over dinner we were treated to a Canadian author describing a prisoner being toasted in the electric chair. Now who thought that would be a good idea? Thankfully, both were in French, which enabled me to tune out with greater ease, although you don’t have to be a great linguist to know what you’re getting when you hear the word ‘crispé’. So, by the time the readings this afternoon were finished, I had counted a total of seven men in the audience, picked at a fascinating stain on my husband’s trousers (toothpaste) and pondered at some length the fact that not enough women check the back of their heads before leaving the house.
But eventually I did wake up to the event at hand when it gradually dawned on me that a wonderful battle of contrasts was being fought most genteelly by two successful, confident and determined women on the stage. I never caught the name of Salley Vicker’s replacement but she was the polar opposite to Rebecca Abrams. The latter was an attractive woman in her late 30s, wearing a wraparound jersey dress and knee-high boots. The new recruit sported shaggy grey hair and was wearing, well, I’m not sure what the technical term would be, but it seemed to be part lock-knit, part sackcloth. She had a mishmash of projects to her name, some poetry, some plays for radio, a rash of creative writing books and I do believe someone mentioned madrigals, but maybe I dreamt that. Abrams was in the distinctly enviable position of having a nicely-jacketed hardback novel to her name. When it came to questions, the rift grew ever wider. Had they found it a difficult transposition to write in male voices? Abrams said she’d found it oddly liberating, the stand-in said she hadn’t noticed it much. How did they know when a book was finished? The stand-in said when it was finished, she just knew it was finished. Abrams said she drove her publishers mad with rewrites. How did they find the process of working with an editor? Abrams said the whole question of finding a first reader was a very interesting one, because you needed someone who was able to understand what it was you were trying to do rather than impose their own interests. But on the whole she had had good editorial interventions and found them helpful. The stand–in told a story about a radio 3 play she’d written that had received two pages of criticism from some impertinent person that she had completely ignored; she never let anyone read her work until it was finished. The publicist woman leapt to her feet and foghorned a question about characters doing things that surprised their author; was that really possible? Stand-in said no, it had never happened to her and you shouldn’t believe anyone who said it had happened to them. Abrams managed to suggest with tremendous diplomacy that she had been quite possessed by the spirit of her 18th century doctor who had occasionally prodded her on a sluggish week to ask when she was ever going to get on with his story; he had, after all, been waiting two hundred years for someone to tell it.
Finally both were asked, given that they had much experience as creative writing teachers, whether creative writing was something that could be taught. Rebecca Abrams said that yes, creative writing could be taught – although whether it could be learned was a different question. She favoured the approach of teaching it as a craft, isolating specific technical devices. But she said she wasn’t sure that you could learn the mindset needed to be a writer – the endlessness of it, the long hours, the loneliness, the resilience required; that might have to be innate. The stand-in said yes it could be taught – as a subject. But she was completely against the workshop principle, thinking it brought nothing of use to the fledgling author to have their writing critiqued by other learners. I thought this was a bit tactless, given that Rebecca Abrams was due to give a workshop the following morning on fictionalizing historical characters, but this is England and all remained tremendously pleasant. Abrams couldn’t resist saying that most candidates on writing courses were women, who needed the camaraderie to find the courage to write, not to mention the time, and that anything that gave women confidence was a good thing in her book. And with that the meeting drew to a close and the audience gave a very hearty round of applause.
As we left, my husband spotted an emergency exit door, and, even better, the button hidden in the wall that you needed to press to make it release. This is why I like to take him places. We found ourselves outside in the fresh air with unexpected alacrity, abandoning the other attendees to their long, long hike back to base.
‘They were chalk and cheese, weren’t they?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said my husband. ‘And I know who I warmed to.’
‘It was the boots and the dress that did it, I’ll bet,’ I said, and my husband gave a happy sigh. So it turned out interesting in the end, and we both had thoughts to reflect upon as we drove home, although I still wish I could have seen Salley Vickers.