How not to write a novel

I stumbled on an interesting and entertaining TV programme last night. Giles Coren, the Times’ famously vitriolic restaurant critic, was talking about his own novel Winkler.

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(image courtesy of the Independent)

On Sky Arts, it was one in a series of programmes exploring artistic failure.

Winkler certainly flopped. Published in 2005, it sold all of 771 copies. I bet Coren’s publishers loved that, after paying him a £30,000 advance.

Giles was so scarred by his literary disaster that he hasn’t attempted to write another novel. But to his credit, he wasn’t afraid to try and understand why it failed so spectacularly. He even met his nemesis, critic Stephen Bayley, who said the book had a certain lavatorial awfulness.

Geoffrey Archer told him how he rewrites his own novels 18 times before sending to his publisher. Giles thought he might have amended his Winkler manuscript twice, so convinced was he of its immediate literary perfection.

Rose Tremain, David Mitchell and Hanif Kureishi all gave him deep insights into their own successful writing processes.


He visibly squirmed when reading the first 5,000 words aloud to the renowned creative writing class at the University of East Anglia. Their feedback was thoughtful…and destructive.

He sat in the back room of a bookshop, eavesdropping on the opinions of a ladies’ book group discussing Winkler. He met them. Everyone laughed. Their feedback was thoughtful…and negative.

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Howard Jacobson told Giles that failure is the ingredient you need to have. And there’s the rub. Giles, already a successful journalist with a public persona, didn’t have to subject his first novel to a publisher’s slush pile review, and inevitable rejection.


So he failed publicly, rather than privately. He knew the writing was flashy. He wrote a lot about arses. He wrote for himself, rather than for the reader. But it was published.

I still don’t particularly like Giles, but I admire him for analysing the reasons he failed so spectacularly with Winkler. And if he risks writing another novel, it will be interesting to see if he writes it for himself, or for the reader.

By the way, you can read on Amazon what Winkler is all about. And some very critical reader reviews.

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