So I've spend a fair few days celebrating the fact that, in the week of 20th April, A Secret Alchemy was the fourteenth bestselling paperback fiction in the UK. Serious celebration, it's been, to top off the pleasure of seeing stacks of it next to The Times it in every W H Smith in the country. Even my agent, who has seen just about every variety of success and disaster the book trade can create, is very, very pleased. And all for that 'difficult' second novel, which has also just had its first advance review for the American incarnation, in Publishers' Weekly:
Historical sections, filled with allusion and mythology, make breathtaking drama ... Darwin's at her most powerful exploring Anthony's faith or Elizabeth's understanding of women, love and marriage in her time... a satisfying end ties the threads together.
And then today I had a bit of a revelation about the absolutely opposite end of the peculiar spectrum of experience we call being a writer. Anyone who's been hanging around this blog long enough will know that one of the recurring themes is about the difference, and interaction, between process and product. I'm a contrary soul so, because so much of talk about how-to-write, let alone what-editors-want, is in terms of product - what you want to have at the end - I spend a lot of time banging on about how process must come first, and then the product may not be what you set out to produce, but will work, be right, have integrity.
But actually, of course, if you want to produce a coherent story, what's really going on is a constant interaction between product and process. At some point you have to decide that you're writing a novel (product). Then you have to decide how (process) to work the material in your head/notebook/gut into something which will be... whatever a novel is (the harder you try, the harder it is to define. A protean form indeed). Then as you work it you're constantly checking to and fro between what you're trying for (product) and what it seems (process) to be becoming (product, but a different product). Your Inner Writer is all about process: it has to keep its ears pricked for surprises, keeping the faith that if your unconscious brings something up from the depths and into the pot of the novel it may well be for a good reason, while not giving up if it turns out to be useless. Your Inner Reader is all about product: it has to keep tasting the stew with a clear idea of what a good stew tastes like and what might make this one good, while being willing to go with the fact that casserole seems to be becoming cassoulet, even if it does mean days of hunting the net and the libraries for new ingredients.
This then mapped itself onto a conversation I'd been having about maleness and femaleness in writing. Bypassing gender-political arguments about the Orange Prize (because we're not talking about actual men and women, but the characteristics which are generally held to live in the baskets labelled 'masculine' and 'feminine') we came to the not very startling conclusion that, actually, the best writing and best writers are both. Let's loosely call 'masculine' such things as goals, problem-solving, linear thought, left-brain, analysis, lack of affect, objectivity, uni-tasking, compartmentalising, status, logic and reason: animus. And shall we call the opposites 'feminine'?: process, problem-finding, simultaneous thought, right-brain, synthesis, awareness of affect, subjectivity, multi-tasking, combining, levelling, a-logic (not illogic) and intuition: anima.
It's bleedin' obvious, isn't it, where this is going. If you're going to be any good as a writer, you have to be both, and they have to work together. Anyone who reads unpublished manuscripts knows the ones which are nothing but facts and events, and even if the characters do feel anything, it's left to the reader to deduce what. And there's the opposite kind, where the emotional state (journey, in the better ones) of the main characters is evoked for pages at a time, and almost nothing outside their head and heart actually happens at all. Even in good, published work one can often say that one or other aspect - anima or animus - dominates, and I write that as a fan of Virginia Woolf and Dick Francis. In ourselves, too, one or other probably dominates, though even in two people with the same percentage split, the effect will vary.* But the writers themselves must be using both aspects.
So if we're trying to bring the two into equality, not so much in balance as working together like top sawyer and bottom sawyer, we have to realise that Inner Writer and Inner Reader each work on their own aspects of process and product. The Reader has to be intuitively open to whatever the story is, as well as deciding what's making the plot machinery creak so loudly just here. And the Writer has to pull a sentence apart ruthlessly and logically to get it to do its job, as well as being open to whatever images or ideas or sudden, unnameable sensations flash across its consciousness. Atwood talks of the ordinary person and the slippery double, Jung of animus and anima. Then there's yin and yang, sun and moon, silver and gold, Sherlock and Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde... Or Pooh and Piglet, of course.
*Struggling to resolve hard-wired feminism with a child of each gender plus their friends, I decided that most of the boys, as it were, took say 60-80% of their characteristics from the basket marked 'boy', and the girls the same from the 'girl' basket. But which 70% they picked varied, so that the net result in an individual child challenges any gender stereotypes you might be wanting to indulge, and grants no quarter to sexism in parents or anyone else.