This is excerpted from the lecture "A Grub Street Life, or Never Mind the Arithmetic," which Jonathan Raban delivered at the University of Washington on October 29. Jonathan Raban is the author of several books that are hard to classify.--Charles Mudede
"I was 27, teaching literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and doing quite a bit of writing on the side. I'd published a couple of--I hesitate to call them "books,' but they were pages of printed matter between hard covers: a sort of freshman-English textbook called The Technique of Modern Fiction, and a short, very short, critical study of Huckleberry Finn... the kind of publications that any literary academic needs on his resumé. But my real interests were elsewhere. During that academic year, I'd had two short stories published in the literary monthly London Magazine; I'd become a regular fiction reviewer for the New Statesman; I'd given a couple of scripted talks on BBC radio's highbrow channel the Third Programme; I'd done some bits of journalism--sketches, really--for a weekly magazine called New Society; and I had written a play for television. The TV play was the decider. It wasn't actually producible (in my ignorance of what was possible on TV, my script called for an entire English village to be swept by fire on film... ), but a producer named Ken Trodd liked what I had written enough to commission a new play from me, for $500, which was about a quarter of my annual salary as a university lecturer. I'd always wanted to be "a writer,' not a teacher, and the check from Kestrel Films made it easy to leave.
"One of my colleagues at East Anglia then was Malcolm Bradbury--10 years older than me, and a novelist (Eating People Is Wrong... Stepping Westward... The History Man), as well as an academic critic, journalist, television writer, and prolific book reviewer. Malcolm said that he envied my decision--that if he weren't married, with two children, it was a decision he would have made for himself years ago. He said--and his words ring now with a certain mocking irony--"I think the answer lies in diversification.'
"I diversified. Set up in London, with all day to write, I did book reviews, plays for TV, plays for radio, bits of reportorial journalism, quite a bit of broadcasting for the BBC. I wrote a book about modern poetry called The Society of the Poem. Encouraged by Alan Ross, the editor of London Magazine, I wrote some quite long, personal essays, about, for instance, living in London. I started a novel, and got a book contract on the strength of Chapter One; but Chapter Two obstinately resisted every attempt I made to write it, so I turned Chapter One into a radio play. I was too busy writing, and too happy with the simple business of living, rather comfortably, off my pen, or my typewriter, to step back and see that though I was spinning like a whirligig, with plenty of literary motion, I was going nowhere in particular. I was "being a writer' all right, but the question of what kind of a writer I was being was growing more obscure and confused by the day.
"Late in 1971, a couple of years after leaving my teaching job, I started a book about... well, I wasn't sure what it was about... my own life in London, the strange theater of life in big cities, the city in history and literature, the city in sociology, the Zeitgeist of the modern metropolis. I thought it was going to be a novel, but it was too plotless to be that. Writing the first page gave me a title, Soft City, and the book pretty well seemed to write itself. It was--and is--an odd book... neither fish, nor flesh, nor fowl, nor good red herring. One chapter is a straight short story, unmistakably fiction, and was published as such in the magazine Encounter. Others are a mixture of memoir and anecdote, dialogue scenes written half out of memory, half out of imagination, interspersed with passages of literary criticism, passages of essaylike rumination and argufying, and rather too many too-lavish descriptions of streets, and squares, and urban interiors. The one consistent narrative thread is my own life in the city during the months that I spent writing the book.
"... After Soft City came out, I went back to reviewing, writing more radio and TV plays, and doing pieces of magazine journalism that took me out of my scruffy flat in Earls Court--traveling around Britain, with jaunts to the United States, France, Monaco, Italy, and, most memorably, a trip to Syria, to ride down the Euphrates River on a raft with Dame Freya Stark. Getting out of the house was painfully important. If you spend the great majority of your days sitting at a typewriter facing a blank wall (which is the only way I can write--if I can see out through a window, it's fatal), you find yourself dreaming of escape into the gregarious outside world, which is partly why I so enjoyed writing plays. Writing alone, I could look forward to driving out to the BBC for the first read-through, hanging out with actors for rehearsals and recordings, the intense, temporary sense of community that goes with putting on a play. And--BBC production standards being what they then were--I got to hang out with some marvelously accomplished British actors, including Donald Pleasence, Richard Briers, Prunella Scales, Alec McCowen, and Julian Fellowes, who has recently become better known as a writer (he wrote the script for the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park).
"The London theater producer Michael Codron happened to see and like a television play of mine called Snooker, and commissioned me to write a play for the stage. In three weeks--which was far too fast--I wrote a play about an elderly clergyman and his daughter, living in a rundown London parish, whose lives were transformed by the arrival on their doorstep of a charismatic manic-depressive. It was called The Sunset Touch, and was given a tryout run at the Bristol Old Vic, where it bombed. The London reviewers took the train out to Bristol, and savaged it something awful in the morning papers following the first night. Ken Trodd, who had produced several of my TV plays, said to me: "When a play works, the actors get the praise, and when it doesn't, the writer gets the blame.' Which seemed cold comfort at the time.
"Licking my critical wounds, I took myself off to Arabia. Excited by my short trip to Syria, and especially by the few days that I'd spent in the city of Aleppo--where, for the first time in my life, I'd felt I'd really stepped outside my own culture--I spent three months wandering through the Gulf States, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria again. Back in my London flat, I set to weaving my travels into a book.
"The travel book sits low on the literary totem pole. Elsewhere, I've called it "literature's house of ill repute.' But I found it a blessedly flexible form, largely because the travel book isn't really a form at all, but a kind of all-purpose narrative vehicle, like a big old truck, into which you can pack storytelling, reportage, meditation, history, memoir, verbal landscape painting, and a great deal else. Every travel book defines and creates its own form, and I had some pretty elevated ambitions for mine. I saw the travel book as a workable alternative to the novel--not as a record of a journey, but as a free-floating literary production that would re-create the world on the page, and pattern it as imaginatively as a work of fiction.
"Arabia came out in 1979. I saw it through publication, then, between Labor Day of '79 and New Year's Day of 1980, I traveled slowly down the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, in a 16-foot skiff. The book I wrote following that journey, Old Glory, was a heartening commercial success, especially here in the U.S., where it was a Book of the Month Club main selection, got the front-page review in the New York Times Book Review, made the national bestseller lists, and at Christmas was named as one of the six "books of the year' by the Times Book Review. I got a taste--though it was a brief and passing taste--of what it might be to be "a best-selling author.' It didn't last, of course. Emboldened by Old Glory, I set off to sail alone around the British Isles, to write a book that would look at my own country from a sea-distance, as if it were a foreign land.
"Back in London after six months away, I couldn't do it. It was the relentless linearity of the journey-narrative that had me beat--the and-then, and-then, and-then, and-thenness of it. I said to friends, sourly, that the book I was trying--and failing--to write ought to be called And Then I Got to Bridlington. I spent nine months tearing up beginnings, getting to 60 pages of typescript, and throwing them away, while I watched the six-figure bank balance that Old Glory had given me sink to five figures, and threaten to go down to four. I abandoned the travel book, and wrote a novel.
"That, at least, was suddenly easy. Some of the ideas I had brought to the unwriteable travel book fueled the novel, and the pages stacked up steadily beside the typewriter. I gave the novel the same title--Foreign Land--that I had originally meant to give the travel book. I was afraid of getting another critical drubbing, but Foreign Land got generally well reviewed, especially in Britain, where my publisher told me that I ought to curb my wanderlust, stay home, and stick to writing fiction.
"Unfortunately, I had seen a way of turning my voyage around Britain into a book, not a novel, which came out in 1986 and was called Coasting. When the novelist Beryl Bainbridge reviewed Coasting in the Spectator, she described it as "half novel, half autobiography, half travel--and never mind the arithmetic.' I have the gall to quote this because Bainbridge put into words exactly what I was trying to do--to write books in which readers wouldn't mind the arithmetic... books in which several different genres of writing could exist side by side within the same discourse, and be phrased in one narrative voice.
"But people do mind the arithmetic, alas. They ask: "Is it fiction, or nonfiction? Is it travel, or history? Where does it go in the Dewey decimal system? Is it an 823 book, or a 910 book, or a 978, or an 827, or a 301?'
"... The last few books--Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Bad Land, Passage to Juneau--have all, I hope, given a few headaches to librarians. They're all mongrels, owing something to the novel, something to the essay, something to the memoir, something to history, and biography, and criticism, and geography. And there's an invigorating feeling of freedom and possibility that comes with not writing in a set genre.
"Yet I spent the last two years writing a novel. It's set in Seattle over the turn of the millennium. It's called Waxwings, and it comes out next year. I've also signed contracts with my publishers in Britain and the U.S. to write two more novels, both set in the Pacific Northwest, over the course of the next five years. A deathbed repentance? I hope not. I see the novels as a continuation of, not a break with, the books that came before them. They're all obsessively concerned with what used to be called "human geography': Writing about place--about people's place in place, and their displacement in it--is still what keeps me going as a writer."