Tag Archives: Books


Rejection is scary. I feel like I’ve swallowed a boulder. The boulder has lodged itself in my chest. It is pressing on my heart. My heart is responsible for pumping blood around my body. My heart is having to beat faster to get the blood to flow around the boulder that is lodged in my chest. My heart hurts. This is what fear feels like. The fear is coming from words: no, no, no, no, no. The words were typed by humans and then translated by computers into ones and noughts. The ones and noughts were fired at great speed through optic fibre cables buried deep underground. When the ones and noughts surfaced they were translated back into words. The words were placed in a virtual file. When the file was ready a noise was emitted. My ears heard the noise. I tapped a small rectangular device made of various precious metals until I could read the words. No, no, no, no, no. It’s a shame, writes my agent. I feel her disappointment. Let’s evaluate and try again.

It’s a shame indeed. Toe-curling, skin-shrinking shame. I try to focus on the physical sensations. They are not unfamiliar. I trace them backwards in time. I follow them back to the wet field where I sank to my knees, overcome with grief because He had met somebody else. He had picked me up and carried me for a while. Then he discovered I was broken inside and he dumped me. She was thin, young, beautiful, whole. I nearly threw my heart up with weeping. No, no, no, no, no. You are not good enough. You do not deserve. You are not allowed in. No, no, no, no, no.

I picture my new shiny agent at her desk, her hand over her mouth, rueing the mistake she has made. I’m a loser. I will spend the rest of my life in abject poverty, sleeping on the street, eating out of bins. I will be forced to retrain as a librarian. I will wear brown calf-length skirts and keep elderly cats and drink five bottles of gin every night.

There is a reason why rejection feels like death. It piggybacks on the neural pathways associated with actual physical pain. Back in the days of the apes, when we literally wouldn’t survive if we were banished from the tribe, the pain of rejection was a valuable corrective tool. The good news is that those who felt the pain of rejection most acutely were the ones most likely to adjust their behaviour and stay alive. The bad news is that the tribe has expanded to include everyone connected by ones and noughts and underground cables made of optic fibres. The potential for experiencing the pain of rejection is no longer limited by distance, or the number of people we actually know. Social media platforms ruthlessly exploit our need to belong and our fear of being excluded. Advertisers go out of their way to target our insecurities, our sense of being left out and left behind. We are bombarded with information about all the fabulous things the slick and succesful members of our tribe are getting up to while we’re wandering lost and lonely in the desert, wearing shoes that are falling apart.

I call a friend, an outwardly-succesful, award-winning writer whom I admire greatly, not just for the books she’s written, which are wonderful, but for the effort she makes to live life fully, however much grief this costs her. She tells me stories of the rejections she has handled. They make me gasp in horror. She tells me they can’t force me to be a librarian. It’s not up to them to decide who I am, she says. I don’t need anybody’s permission to get on with my work. AlI I need is a piece of paper and a pencil. I force myself to call my new and shiny agent. It’s not personal, she says. It’s the market. It’s normal.

I do not feel normal. I feel like I’ve swallowed a boulder and now I’m trying to hack it up with a piece of paper and a pencil.

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be on Instagram, papering over the cracks with ones and noughts and hashtags. I should be refining an image of myself as one of the slick and succesful people that have never been rejected. But I want you to know it’s an illusion. I’m not one of those people. Those people don’t exist, and the sad thing is that we exclude ourselves from the comfort of genuine human interaction every time we believe in them. They are not personal. They are the market. The market is not normal.

Onwards, says my new and shiny agent.

Elena Ferrante on Brexit

chickensElena Ferrante, best-selling Italian author who has (just) managed to hang onto her anonymity, eschewing all interviews and never being seen dead on social media, has spoken out about Brexit.



I am making mad connections between entirely unconnected things because it suits my argument.

I’m upset about Brexit. I could fill a post with all the reasons why I’m upset about Brexit, from the most self-centred and practical (loss of right to live and work in 27 countries in which trains and houses are actually affordable and the sun actually shines) to the most outward-looking and existential (the rise and rise of the far-right and what this means for world peace). But I’m not going to talk about Brexit. Not while we’ve all still got a hangover. I’m going to talk about stories.

Because I have finally reached a conclusion: Leave won not because voters were stupid, misguided, hoodwinked, or vicious (some probably were, but most probably weren’t). Leave won because the perpetrators of Leave told the most coherent story, and in times of unfathomable complexity, such as now, a coherent story is like a pork pie on the side of a freezing mountain. You know its wrong, but you’ll eat it anyway.

The connection between Brexit and Elena Ferrante, apart from the fact that Elena Ferrante distracted me from the mad ravings of Trump for the whole of December with her utterly fabulous Neapolitan quartet, is that right at the end of the last book ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ she has one of her characters explain something about bad fiction, which reminded me of Nigel Farage:

‘Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are likeable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.’

The problem with Nigel Farage, apart from all the other problems with Nigel Farage, is that his consoling stories are made of pork pies. Truth doesn’t come in slogans. Truth is nuanced and subtle, quiet and contradictory, a fine balance of probabilities, a line drawn in snow, an instinct for kindness, a desire for justice. Truth, dammit, is always collapsing into awkward puddles of conflicting points of view, both of which are equally valid. Truth is too complex to be represented on the side of a bus. Truth surfaces in strange places. Truth has even been spotted on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, although not very often.

Which brings me to my final point. I have been struggling for a long time to explain to myself why I hate promoting myself on social media. Someone told me it was because I was lazy. I am lazy, so that had the ring of truth, but it wasn’t the truth. The truth, as ever, was more complicated. Social media relies on a two dimensional world of constructed selves, with all the difficult bits left out. Novels, on the other hand, or books of any kind, are only as good as they have managed to scrape away the constructs to reveal the messy and often embarrassing and yet deeply human and therefore unifying truth underneath. There’s a deep conflict between the goals of good writing and the goals of social media.

Therefore I have decided that 2017 will be the year of rejecting coherent narratives, listening instead of ranting (ranting is so Nigel Farage), resisting the temptation to construct a cooler, slicker and more successful version of myself on social media, and instead engaging with the yin-yang complexity of existence whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans, although not last thing at night.

I like dark chocolate, are you with me or against me?

Except that sometimes I like milk chocolate and sometimes I even like white chocolate. Sometimes I don’t even like coffee.

Who the fuck am I?

I am both.

Two fingers to Nigel Farage and his bad novels made of pork pies. I am British and European and Welsh and a citizen of the World and totally sure and totally confused and happy and sad and lazy and mad and sane and educated and underemployed and worn-out with working and indebted and human and real and ordinary. 

Just like you.

Just like the characters in the novels of Elena Ferrante, which is why they’re so damn good.

And finally, if, like me, you happen to find complexity comforting, rather than threatening, then I’d urge you to spend an evening watching Adam Curtis documentaries on Youtube.  Whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans. Dark, milk, white, whatever….

Cheers. Here’s to a grown-up and heavily nuanced 2017.