Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Confidence Trick

In my bathroom, alongside an electronic air freshener and a scented candle there’s a series of books lined up on a green shelf. It’s a rag-tag assortment of titles, the constituents of which change periodically. At the moment there’s Simon Bradley’s evocative history of St Pancras Station; a surprisingly handsome mid-eighties edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination; a proof copy of Reality Hunger by David Shields, a book that will become the essential literary toilet book of this decade; The Day of the Match by Scott Murray and Rowan Walker, an anecdotal, joyful history of association football full of gem-like stories and at least one misplaced score line; and Due Considerations, John Updike’s final collection of criticism and essays.

Every bathroom, I believe, should have a collection of criticism close at hand. At various times I have subjected Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect and Will Self’s two collections Junk Mail and Feeding Frenzy (which are, perhaps, his best books) to the tiles and the humidity and found them to be exceptionally good company. I like reading about books in much the same way I like restaurant reviews: I never base my dining upon them, but I like their rigor and confidence.

Confidence in writing criticism, however, is quite different to confidence in writing fiction. When writing reviews or pieces on literature, one is always, to one degree or another, confident in what is written. Updike’s essays, for example, do not seem agonised over, their arguments sweated over, nor their conclusions dwelt upon. The confidence of a lifetime in letters, of being a pre-eminent critic, cultural guardian and author of some of the twentieth century’s key novels, means that Updike always knows whereof he speaks. But fiction is another story; and the part confidence plays in it is both nebulous and – to some degree – nefarious.
Recently I was sitting at my desk revising a story called “Real Work”. It’s one of the stories I like the most from my collection and I didn’t think I’d have to make too many changes to make it fit for publication. But around midnight it seemed to shift as I read it; the words suddenly lifeless. When I went back to it later that week, it was back the way it had been, the words rearranging themselves into something with which I was, again, happy. This happens to every writer, probably even Updike had it once or twice, and it proves what everyone knows about fiction – confidence in your writing is never constant. The question is, whether you think this is a bad thing or not.

Alan Rinzler – the discoverer of Toni Morrison and now “consulting editor” for aspiring writers – thinks it’s a bad thing. To him, “self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed”, which, leaving aside the wisdom of taking advice from a “consulting editor” who believes something can be more or less essential, is something of a shocking discovery. Talent, style, originality, dedication, voice would have been my top five guesses for “Most important ingredient needs to succeed”. I think self confidence would have been somewhere around seventy or so, right after “having cracking tits or a massive cock”.

It would be easy to dismiss Rinzler as a lone crank – particularly if you read his stultifyingly ill-informed and unintentionally hilarious piece “Why Publishers Love Short Stories” – but he is far from alone. The web is cluttered with handy hints, smart guides and top tips about boosting your confidence, as though believing in yourself was the only things stopping you getting a book deal. Let’s be quite upfront about it: this is rubbish. It is, for want of a better expression, a confidence trick.

Far from being the single most essential ingredient of a successful author, confidence can ruin writers, can send them down dark alleys never to return. If you’re so confident in your work, you’re more likely to blind yourself to its follies and not have the necessary objectivity to stand back and appraise it properly. Beckett’s “try again, fail again, fail better” – a favourite of writers and creative writing courses alike – is instructive: why so confident, it suggests, when you’re always going to fall short?

What really are the benefits of confidence? What does it really add to your work? Stubbornness, perhaps, an unwillingness to take advice, an attitude, like Martin Amis, that you don’t need an editor? A huge bag full of confidence just looks like hubris if your book, like Martin Amis’s, is panned. The industry that has grown up around writing – courses, seminars, literary coaches – needs writers to buy into this confidence trick because deep down most writers need someone to help them feel that their work is worth something. Raising the importance of confidence, therefore, keeps a steady stream of people signing up for such sessions.

And the product of that confidence is quite often nasty. While I was writing my first (unpublishable) novel, I worked as an editor at a well-known publishing house. For the most part, I would sit slack jawed at the submissions I received; not because of the quality of the writing, but the misplaced confidence of these would-be writers. When I wrote detailed rejection letters explaining why their manuscript was simply not good enough for publication, the response was often that I knew nothing, that publishers were cowards, that their book was a masterpiece and the fact that everyone else thought it was gash was some kind of conspiracy against them. These were not even the crazies; these were people who seemed utterly rational and normal until they were let loose on a word-processor.

The bedrock of television talent shows is the over-confident oik who think that he or she can sing/dance/wrestle bears but in fact can’t. Audiences never seem to tire of this ongoing joke, particularly because the over-confident oik is never in on the gag. In the literary equivalent, Rinzler’s like the cuddly boyfriend who threatens to deck the presenter: he’s not really helping matters.

I'm lucky. I have a good agent; a profile, however, meagre; and contacts in the industry. But am I confident? Christ no. Not in my stories, not in the fact that I will get published, not even in the title of the book. But I believe this is to be embraced, to be seen for the advantages it holds. Your own work is blind to you, which is why critics and commentators are so important. Their books, whether shelved in a bathroom or in a dusty library, don’t care whether you were confident or not – just whether you were any good.