Simon Garfield’s foreword to Brand New & (Almost) Entirely True, the 2019 UEA MA Non-Fiction anthology, published by Egg Box
Every now and then I teach a one-day class at The Guardian for people who think they have a good idea for a non-fiction book. Most of them do: someone has found a stunning cache of letters in an attic and wants to reconstruct a life; someone wants to write a cultural history of the giraffe; what about a book – or perhaps just a great magazine story – about what it was like to live next door to Robbie Williams as a teenager? The people on the course come for a bit of advice about the process (agents, advances) and some guidance about techniqueAs writers of non-fiction I think we live in charmed times. The blank page has never been so blank, nor the publisher’s catalogue more empty – that is to say, the field is open to us as never before. (how to write the perfect proposal without pulling your hair out). I begin each class with a slice of hijacked/misquoted/possibly apocryphal erudition from Dorothy Parker. Asked what advice she’d give to an aspiring writer contemplating their first book, she suggested that the best thing would be to take them into the garden and shoot them.
Ms Parker was offering her wisdom to the would-be novelist, but why should it not apply equally to non-fiction? Nothing will be easy, after all. You may find it impossible to condense your 80,000-word three-year masterwork into an ultra-commercial two-page summary that satisfies a publisher’s marketing team; you may struggle forever with the architecture of your work, to the point where the brilliant but complex idea that’s been taking up four-fifths of your brain for the last year appears as nothing but rubble at your feet. And you may, after so long at work on something that seems so important to you, wonder whether it will be of any interest at all to anyone else. And then you’ll have to go out and sell the thing.
But then again… As writers of non-fiction I think we live in charmed times. The blank page has never been so blank, nor the publisher’s catalogue more empty – that is to say, the field is open to us as never before. When I first visited bookshops in my teens I saw nothing as remotely exciting as I see on the front tables now. In the main, biographies were fat, unimaginative chronologies; histories appeared densely academic; unless you were famous, memoir hardly existed. American New Journalism (reporting as a novel, the author often centre stage) was just emerging, and narrative non-fiction was still regarded as experimental. These days, anything goes in every style – the medical comedy, the nature journal, the call to arms on the environment, gender, health, social justice, even a book on typefaces for goodness’ sake.If you’re good – that is, if your story is strong, if you rewrite it at least eight times, if you believe in your talent – you will find your readership and hopefully your reward.
If you’re good – that is, if your story is strong, if you rewrite it at least eight times, if you believe in your talent – you will find your readership and hopefully your reward. I’ve been lucky enough to have read many of the pieces in this anthology, and they have all the elements in place: originality, a freshness of style, narrative tension, damn readability. You’re going to enjoy this collection, not least because it promises so much to come.