Julian Barnes: why I wrote an extravagantly damning review of my own debut novel

Julian Barnes in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2258 Oct. 01 23.21I was an unconfident and late-arriving first novelist. Metroland was published when I was 34, and I’d been working on it for seven or eight years. I’d put it in a drawer for long periods, shown it to friends with mixed response, worried about it, liked it, despised it. Some first novelists behave as if the world has been waiting to hear from them, and occasionally this is the case: the world doeswant to hear this new story, told by this new voice, in this new manner. I had no such self-belief. Besides, I’d been reading serious fiction for nearly 20 years: what made me think I could add anything to the literary world’s store of wisdom, human insight and technical craft? Neither did I feel that this was some necessary, if meagre, first step for me: learn with and from my first novel, grow in confidence, then “become a novelist”. I was entirely lacking in ideas for future books; indeed, perhaps I wanted to “be a novelist” mainly in the sense of “having published a single novel”.

While I was drafting and redrafting Metroland, I showed it to the only two writer friends I had. Both were poets, which might have been a mistake. One was substantially evasive, while telling a mutual friend that I should suppress the book now, as otherwise I’d “regret it” later. The other told me I ought to rereadGreat Expectations and “put in a wanking scene”. I didn’t confess that I could hardly reread Great Expectations as I hadn’t ever read it in the first place; nor did I put in a wanking scene. So at least I had a certain stubbornness, which is a necessary part of being a writer.

I had a theoretical agent; but the only contract she had so far drawn up – for a new edition of Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to be co-edited by me and the “wanking” poet – had petered out as a project almost immediately.

More here.