I suppose most of us have read Luton Fawnsgill’s work, ‘And then they all died.’ Indeed if you were at the university at the right time, it would have been your set book. As an aside that is not surprising, indeed there were rumours in both the literary and the student communities that Luton had a contract to supply the examining boards with one new book a year.
In reality there was no formal contract. There didn’t have to be, as Luton was at the time perhaps the leading writer of literary fiction in the city. So every year students would study one of his books, along with a number of others, then in their final year they would be faced with something just published. This was held by many students to be mendacious. At the very least it was the height of bad manners. If a book is just published there are no simple guides explaining it. What is more, you cannot just buy your essays from those who studied the book last year. Indeed it might be worth mentioning at this point that the resale market for essays remains a thriving one. I’ve known essays written forty years ago which are still being sold on as the original work of the vendor. When you see them they are like old friends, and frankly, to the harassed lecturer who has to mark them, they’re a welcome interlude. You merely have to dig out the comments you made last time you saw the essay.
The problem was that Luton was experiencing writer’s block. To be fair, he was very much at risk. Prosperous, well connected, happily married with children and a nice house, it was inevitable he was struck down. In my experience the best cure for writer’s block is an empty larder and creditors hammering on the door.
Still, initially he barely noticed he wasn’t writing. Then he realised that he was slipping behind his schedule and over the next few weeks he pondered the matter. It seemed that even if he wrote something, he couldn’t somehow bring himself to continue it. Then he remembered some advice he’d been given years before. An older and wiser friend had told him, “The best cure for writer’s block is just to write. Write anything. If you cannot continue with the work you’re doing, just start with a fresh piece of paper and commence something new. Come back to the other work later.
So that morning he got a clean sheet of paper and sat down at the table and started to write. After an hour or two he realised he had run into a metaphorical wall so he stopped. Next morning with a new clean sheet of paper he tried again. Now because he had a large table in his study he didn’t move the previous day’s work, he just moved his chair. At the end of the week there were seven small piles of sheets of paper. He persevered and over the next three weeks he had run out of table and was working on both the writing desk and the occasional table where his decanters lived. To be fair, some of the sheets were totally blank where he’d just spent the day staring at them. Some contained merely a sentence or two, the only thing that had come into his mind. To be fair they were fine sentences, well-crafted and exquisitely witty. They merely needed another seventy thousand words adding to them and they’d be eminently publishable. On the other hand some of the piles were the result of several day’s work where he’d written quite a bit before running out of steam. As he surveyed the previous month’s work he came to the conclusion that at the current rate of progress he’d have three books ready to publish in about five years’ time, with several more ready in the following two decades.
Then he was offered a post as visiting professor of literature in Oiphallarian. This is a post funded, generously, by the city. He accepted with far more alacrity than the offer called for and virtually fled.
His wife, Madam Fawnsgill, decided she would get the house tidy before she travelled to join him for a few months. (Let us be honest here, she decided she’d spend the winter in Port Naain where it is tolerable, and would join her husband in time for Oiphallarian’s summer season.)
Thus eventually she got round to tackling Luton’s study. She took one look at the piles of paper scattered all over the place and methodically she picked them up, the blank sheets included, and put them together in a folder. It was next morning, when one of the children wanted to do some drawing, that she remembered the blank sheets and told them to take one from their father’s folder. In the course of acquiring that one sheet of paper, the contents of the folder ended up getting tipped over the floor, gathered up again and hastily replaced in the folder.
It was not long after this that Madam Fawnsgill received a visit from Saon Keeber. Apparently the university was hoping for the manuscript of Luton’s next work and he had dropped round, ‘to find out how things were progressing.’ Whilst he had his faults, Keeber knew writers. So he would set them an artificially early deadline, and would then start chasing them for promised work well before it. Madam remembered the folder and handed it to Keeber with the words, “This has to be it. There’s nothing else lying about.”
Keeber took the work home and started to read it. It must be confessed, he struggled. The story seemed somewhat disjoined, even for literary fiction. At one point he wasn’t sure whether the story had irregular ‘flashbacks’ or sporadic ‘flash-forwards.’ Eventually he did the only reasonable thing and dumped the folder on a very junior lecturer who was being paid a pittance to edit the thing. That much put-upon individual took the folder home and studied the contents carefully.
After some time, he’d got the pages in approximately the right order, but still couldn’t seem to grasp the plot. Then he had a moment of inspiration. One or two of the blank pages weren’t entirely blank. They often had a sentence or two on them and one provided for him the answer to the mystery. It read, ‘Still, it was only a subjective opinion but none the worse for that.’ Suddenly it was obvious to him that the great Luton Fawnsgill had intended the reader to bring their own wisdom to the plot by adding their own ideas on the blank pages.
Satisfied that he knew what was going on, he tidied up the spelling, corrected some punctuation, and generally prepared it for printing. But the book still had no ending. It was then he remembered one of the other almost blank pieces of paper. It bore the words, ‘And then they all died.’ That was obviously the ending. What is more he felt it made an excellent title.
When Luton Fawnsgill arrived back in Port Naain, he was somewhat surprised to discover he’d had a book published in his absence. He spent the next three months avoiding students of literature who wished to ask him questions about the deeper meaning of his work. Finally he came out of hiding after the exams and proceeded to read the exam scripts. He felt that they had a better chance of understanding the book than he had, as they’d actually read it.
The general feeling in the student body was that Luton had written a damning critique of literary fiction. They supported this claim by pointing to his sense of humour. Here I must say that whilst Luton’s work can be both grim and dismal, he does have a wicked sense of humour. Every so often there will be a barbed shaft of brilliant wit which would suddenly illuminate the whole page. Indeed, due to the nature of this work, it had somehow concentrated the wit meant to be shared among several works. At times it was genuinely funny.
Hastily Luton produced a set of student’s notes about the book, culling his ideas almost entirely from the exam scripts. These he rushed into print. Frankly they sold far better than the book itself had.
He did occasionally give lectures about the book, going into great lengths about the years he’d spent working on it and how it was the culmination of his striving for mastery of the creative process. I attended a couple but he asked me not to in future. I suspect it was the way I kept giggling. But being the editor does give you a special insight into a work that perhaps not even the author shares.
If you wish to know more of the literary life, then read
When he is asked to oversee the performance of the celebrated ‘Ten Speeches’, Tallis Steelyard realises that his unique gifts as a poet have finally been recognised. He may now truly call himself the leading poet of his generation.
Then the past comes back to haunt him, and his immediate future involves too much time in the saddle, being asked to die in a blue silk dress, blackmail and the abuse of unregulated intoxicants. All this is set in delightful countryside as he is invited to be poet in residence at a lichen festival.