Skip to Content

Fay Weldon at AWC


Report from the Annual Writers’ Conference in Winchester

In the week that brought the news that the average age of authors whose books were in the US bestseller lists was a little over fifty, Fay Weldon in her plenary address to the 25th Writers’ Conference at Winchester had more good news for mature writers.

She said that readers wanted a new and convincing reality in a novel. To achieve this, it helped to have a lifetime of experience to incorporate into your work. ‘The reader is looking to you to provide some meaning and shape to the chaos of real life.’ Some exceptions were admitted but a mature perspective on life was essential. Reality is unshaped and confusing. The writer’s job is to provide a pattern.

Experience of life provided the material but it was the way the writer shaped it that made it worth reading. Your readers do not want an image that was ‘shrunk and shrivelled – it should be bursting out’. So, if you have run out of things to say, stop writing.

This said, Fay Weldon thought the focus must be on the writing and not on the writer. The writer has to do a deal which balances what they want to say with what the reader is willing to read. Just as every engineer is told that all design is compromise, a writer in pursuit of excellence must keep the reader’s requirements in mind in everything they write.

Fay Weldon’s talk took the tittle The Agony of Excellence. She briefly explored the dilemma faced by every writer, which is that they can never be completely satisfied with their work. There are two options, she explained. Give up or accept the limitations and move on, with the latter being the only acceptable route for those with the compulsion to write.

But there is nothing wrong with a little agony. It is the price a writer pays if they want to pursue excellence. But as my old English teacher used to say to those who deployed this defence to cover the late delivery of their work: ‘The excellent is the enemy of the good.’ This same teacher gave one boy an excellent mark while confessing that he had not been able to read much of the essay as it had been eaten by his dog, ‘but the mongrel has very good taste.’

A good book and a marketable work are different, and both are elusive. What some see as a weakness, others will recognise as a strength. So writers were strongly encouraged by Fay to keep submitting their work for publication. ‘The worst that can happen is a rejection from some stranger who you will probably never meet’.

‘Always bite off more than you can chew’ was another piece of advice delivered to the 400 writers filling the hall. Writers have to be gamblers who if they had any sense would do something else. Fay Weldon went on to compare writing to riding a bike. Once learnt, you never forget how to ride. But the routes you then take are up to you. You will face hills, but every uphill has its downhill. But as every cyclist knows, the wind is seldom at your back except when you are stationary, so accept the headwind as a part of the fun.

She mused upon the changes that she had seen in the book business. Twenty five years ago, publishing was always referred to as a profession. Now it is a business and one where the booksellers presently rule. The modern bookshop embodies the sense of distorted reality encountered in clothes shops. ‘We all know that the average dress-size is about 16’ but you would not believe that if you looked at the size 8 manikins and images on display. ‘Sanity will return’ she reassured her audience after recounting some of the absurdities she had recently witnessed in the book business.

The future belongs to good writers. Soon, she reassured her attentive audience, buyers will be able to have a book printed just for them ‘and they will probably be able to select the jacket of their choice.’

Chas Jones

© Chas Jones 2005