As part of Sky Arts’ “Failure Season” (as good a season as any other to have I suppose, it seems a very British thing to celebrate failure!) came this hour long documentary in which journalist, restaurant critic and TV presenter Giles Coren recalled his failed attempt at the literary novel. Back in 2005, Coren, with a £30,000 advance (a very healthy amount for a debut literary novel- his high profile helped) had published “Winkler”. The experience put him off novel writing.
He knew he had a failure on his hands once he saw the reviews but was shocked to discover during the programme that his total ten year sales were 771 in hardback and 1400 in paperback. His agent tried to reassure him that these were acceptable figures for a literary debut (staggering that) but perhaps not one from a high-profile figure with a publishing company keen to recoup their advance. During the programme Coren had to face up to different aspects of the failure of his novel – a tale of “an angry young man who hates everyone…………a sexually frantic coming of age novel.”
Along the way there were a number of revelations especially from Alexandra Pringle, Editor in Chief of Bloomsbury who said; “Quite a lot of books that are published are no good, let alone the ones that don’t get published” and “It’s perfectly possible to publish a book and not get any reviews at all” a fact which those of us who indulge in the mad scramble for titles with review allocators such as Netgalley will no doubt register some surprise.
Coren went to visit a reviewer who had savaged his book, having read “some of it” and sorted through his knife drawer! He met author Rachel Johnson at her book launch who said; “People want the same thing over and over again. Don’t ever try to do anything new.” Jeffery Archer talked about his god-given talent, drive and determination (!) all of which he felt that Giles Coren lacked and Archer certainly bucks the figures of the average author’s earnings of £4,000 a year. Hanif Kureishi, David Mitchell, Rose Tremain and William Nicholson also gave their views.
By this time I was feeling sorry for Coren, squirming as a book group found his work challenging (but in the marvellously constructive way of book groups thought he had it in him to write a better novel) and students from a MA Creative Writing course were so sniffy it made for excruciating viewing and with lack of success almost guaranteed for most of them it did make you wonder why they just didn’t do Geography instead! Coren looked at the effects of literary prizes but acknowledged his sole accolade (The Bad Sex Award) hadn’t really helped sales. He also admitted that he hadn’t thought about his readers at all when he wrote the novel (obviously the most resounding nail in his literary coffin) but felt that the process of re-examining failure might just have re-lit a tiny literary flame within him.
This was actually a fascinating hour and Giles Coren is open and likeable enough for the viewer to feel amused, annoyed and sorry for him. I’ve revealed more than I would normally do regarding the programme details because tucked away on Sky Arts it’s likely that this did not attract that large an audience and I think there were a lot of very interesting points made. Let’s hope the audience figures were higher than the number of purchasers of his book. For the many of us with at least one finished, unpublished novel stuffed into a cupboard this was essential viewing.
Giles Coren: My Failed Novel was first broadcast on Monday 29th February on Sky Arts. It is currently available on Sky catch-up services