I wrote once before about why I don’t drive any more. The advantages of walking – of taking one’s time when moving from A to B – are still as present in my life today as they were then. When I travel, even if by train or bus as opposed to on foot or bicycle, there is usually no point in rushing. Instead, I try to take note of the journey. I do a lot of people watching: eavesdropping on lives, peering through lit windows. Under my own steam, I am a habitual seeker out of cut-throughs; of forgotten alleyways behind houses or tracks through copses. Yes I love scenery – the backs of houses glimpsed from a train, the terraced houses which snake down London’s hills – but I’m as interested in verges: in the dropped clues that are single abandoned gloves or last night’s takeaway carton (I couldn’t live happily in the South East of England without having learned a way to live peaceably with litter).
And then there are the times I don’t walk. On those occasions, I am driven.
It’s terribly lucky and spoiling, to be driven to one’s destination by another. But of course being driven is so totally undemanding, so it can become rather dull. Sitting in the passenger seat, I often fall into a passive sort of stupor, barely taking note of the road I am on, the time of day, the traffic. Sometimes, I sleep. I am a princess passenger. I like a heated seat, a pillow for long journeys, to pull my feet up under me, to suck on my favourite sweets. I tend to get grumpy if the driver goes too fast, or takes risks (being the perpetual passenger makes one risk averse; frequently putting my safety into another’s hands means I often get grumpy). Oh, and I am night blind, so I get nervous on unlit roads, or in the glare of oncoming headlights.
Yes, come to think of it, I am a terrible passenger, a real pain. But the thing is, I am the sort of person who would rather drive her own car, buy her own ticket. In general, I like to be in control of my own destiny – to pick my time of departure, my route, my speed. I am self-propelling, in life. I tend always to have a destination in sight, and to be on my way towards it, often solo. I don’t much like lazing about, or waiting for others, or being passive, or watching the scenery, or having some time off. I like to have a purpose.
Working in the books business isn’t evidently self-justifying, in the way that brain surgery, cancer research, or teaching is. Publishing books isn’t inherently useful, like sanitation, or architecture, or even accountancy. It’s good work – work we all tend to love – and in doing that work we brush up against art. Although, as a literary agent, no matter if I should wish I could perpetuate a myth of myself as one of an army of defenders of literature, of culture – actually what I do is about taste, and following my instincts on what is good.
Agents read a lot of works-in-progress, hundreds of pages of unformed fiction. I can shuffle my way through a slush pile pretty damn quickly dividing scripts into piles labelled Maybe and No. What am I looking for? Well of course one of the qualities that marks a good unpublished manuscript out from the others is that it will have a sense of purpose.
When one reads a good book by an experienced author, a sense of purpose is present from the first page. As a reader you sense the writer’s confidence; their control over plot and theme and story. The opening of the book might offer up action or jeopardy which promises more action; or evidence of complex characterisation that intrigues us. And these characters, their voices, and this jeopardy: they can only convince on page one if the writer knows where he or she is going and why. If they have a sense of purpose.
A good novel’s purpose stealthily stalks the reader through every chapter thereafter, insistently conveying the writer’s implicit and reassuring message: I know where you are going, because I built the road on which you are travelling. Trust me, you want to read on.
And, sensing the author’s strong sense of direction, we readers willingly offer up control of the journey to the writer, relishing our status as princess passengers. Isn’t that how you feel, when you turn the pages of Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations? As though you can sit back and trust the driver, even on the unlit roads, even when travelling at speed? And don’t they know, these great drivers, how at certain points in the journey, if they want to keep your attention, the thing to do is to offer you the chance to put your hand on the wheel or the gear stick, or ask you to read the map, so that as the reader you start to wish for certain outcomes or to unravel the story’s biggest mysteries?
Giving a book a sense of purpose is quite different from ensuring it has a story. To convey purpose, a story requires an internal rationale which lends it shape and a sense of ‘aboutness’. Sometimes, as I have written before, a writer can only ask themselves that question – what is it all about? – at the end of the first draft of their novel.
And you may even have to write and write and rewrite, to uncover your book’s purpose. In the same way a musician practices scales for the love of sound, the love of his instrument, the love of beautiful subtleties of tone that you can only uncover by repetition, so might a novelist carefully draft and redraft the same passage, revealing new meaning in every iteration. After all, good things are learned from practice; virtuosity isn’t a talent, it’s earned. And, just as a musician practices scales because that beautiful sound will permit access to the larger beauty of music, so does the writer’s hard work on one sentence or chapter or section sometimes find the most beautiful, most direct route, into the greater accomplishment of a fine novel.
I mentioned that musicians love the sound of their instrument and of course the same is true of writers; writers love their art and find beauty in the right sentence, the perfect paragraph. Work + Art + Love. Not a bad set of guiding principles for anyone in search of purpose. The satisfaction of hard work; the illumination offered by art; love’s comfort and inspiration – in the overlap of those three realms we in the books business find our beloved activities of reading and writing. The work a reader or editor and a writer do together, to search out meaning from a text. The joy and art of a beautiful piece of writing that transports you to a new place. The love of our work, and the way reading and writing illuminate our love of everything else.
All of us in publishing find our purpose somewhere in this overlap between work, art and love. We know where we’re going. Let’s gather as many readers to us as possible, to come along for the ride. We can take turns to drive.