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Running with Wolf Hall

When Wolf Hall was published, I was up to my neck (and frequently out of my depth) in writing a novel. I love Hilary Mantel's writing, but I didn't dare go near it. A novel about high politics and low violence set only fifty years after A Secret Alchemy, and built round real historical characters? Might it just make me throw in the towel forever? Well, yes: the book is astonishingly, magnificently good, in everything from the big ideas to the small words. When I put it down yesterday I was about half-way through, and it took two hours and three mugs of builder's tea to get myself back to being present in this world, not that one. Yes, I wanted to throw in that towel.

And then again: no, I didn't. Today the day job (teaching, mostly, but also tax-returning/feeding-the-blog/emailing) has to happen, but even as I'm typing this I can hear the cadence and pattern of Mantel's prose like an earworm. It's utterly compelling, but I do have my own voice, and my relationship to it is much the same as my relationship with my body: sometimes I hate it, sometimes I'm very happy with it, it certainly won't win me a Booker let alone two, but it's always me and I'm always stuck with it. As singers know, the only voice I can do better than anyone else can is my own voice, so I might as well get on with it.

So if I'm not trying to write like Mantel what, exactly, is going on when we say to new writers: read, read, read? What's going on when I'm asked about how-to-write books, and prescribe how-to-read ones? And what's going on when I'm not noticing technique as I read, because I'm far too deep in the world to haul myself out and notice how she does it?

And yes, she takes technical risks. For example, she's so closely but tacitly locked into Cromwell's point-of-view that she lets herself use a pronoun - "he" - as the third-person/free-indirect form of the "I" he'd use of himself, even when it conflicts with another character's "he" in the same sentence. It's confusing and for a moment my grip on what's happening loosens. But I don't mind in the least because at some level I've given myself trustingly into her hands.

The narrative is in present tense, which I've been known to have mixed feelings about, but I was too shaken by Cromwell's first meeting with the Duke of Norfolk to go back and see how she handles the flashbacks and other challenges, although it's doing what present-tense does: making things slighly hallucinatory and free-floating. Things like the slips to-and-fro, the ambiguity of who-says-what, which could so easily just drop me out of the story with a bump, are all working on me because that's what technique, in the hands of a master such as Mantel, does: work on you without you feeling the engineering. Instead, I feel as if I'm hovering in the air in this world, with only the thinnest of veils between me and the past. Oh, to be able to do that to my own readers!

But, as the Queen in Alan Bennet's delicious The Uncommon Reader, puts it, "reading tenderises you", and it's true of other arts too. So although I want to give up writing in despair, I'm also in the state that I think of as "skinned": a hyper-awareness of the physical and mental world I inhabit. Somehow, in having all my faculties opened by a work of art - in opening myself to what it wants to do to me - I'm now also open to everything else. And because I'm a writer I can't be in that state without being desperate to turn that hyper-awareness into words: this book which is making me despair is also supplying me with rocket-fuel.

I think, too, that this kind of immersive reading can train our intuition. The Mantel-tuned earworm in my head is only part of it, although if I were dealing with a first draft I wouldn't have started Wolf Hall, because I pick up other voices very easily. I had to have a year-long moratorium on reading Raymond Chandler, to prevent Stephen Fairhurst in The Mathematics of Love sounding like Philip Marlowe, but at some level Mantel's cadences are becoming part of my writerly vocabulary, just as Jane Austen's did decades before I started writing Stephen. And I can train my intuition consciously, by stopping to notice how Mantel does it.

The third reason we're told to read, read, read, especially by agents and editors, is to notice What's Being Published Now. This is necessary, of course, if that's what it takes to get you to understand at a writerly level how much both fiction and the world has changed since you first learnt to read. You can't just re-badge old-style writing, even if you're channelling a great like Elizabeth Bowen or Graham Greene, and succeed: that was Then and you are writing in and for readers Now. It's also (and contrarily) true that a writer, such as Mantel, with an established readership can perhaps take technical risks, because she can rely for a while on her readers' trust, when that trust isn't available to you because you're unknown.

But if you're reading Wolf Hall in the spirit of understanding the market for ropes - to discover how to write a Booker winner - then I think you're making a mistake about what reading is for writers. A really good book - a great work of art - is sui generis, and so it eludes exegesis, it can't be an object-lesson, because it's always more, simultaneously, than any single analysis can express. And so a great work of art will always do more to you, simultaneously, than you can, in your humble single-ness, take from it.

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