Catherine Robertson’s latest novel What You Wish For has raced to the top of the best-seller charts – but what she really, really wants is to win a prize for being funny.
There’s a writing prize I really want to win. When I say really, I mean reallyreallyreallyreally ad infinitum. It’s the Comedy Women in Print prize, created by writer and actress Helen Lederer, who was in Absolutely Fabulous and also narrated the audio version of the children’s book Lullabyhullabaloo. She established the prize because the only other prize for funny fiction, the Wodehouse, has awarded it to female writers three times in 18 years. The Wodehouse was cancelled last year because the judges didn’t laugh at any of the 62 entries. Which, come to think of it, is pretty funny.
My latest novel What You Wish For is funny. I worked hard at the jokes and my greatest thrill is when people say they laughed out loud. One reader told me he let out a significant guffaw, which he thought people only did in books.
It’s also the first book of mine to receive solid promotional backing from my publisher, Penguin Random House. I’m featured in their summer advertising campaign and I have whole team helping me with publicity and social media. The Australian Penguin Random House office is right behind me, too. I have no profile there, so the realistic goal is to build it up over time, and prepare the ground for subsequent books.
But what I really want is to take the country by storm, and then conquer the world, clutching a comedy prize trophy in both hands. I have a cover quote from John Campbell! I’m on the front of the Whitcoulls catalogue! How can I fail?!
Now, I realise full well that publicising such a grand ambition is asking for trouble. Ambition is everything a Protestant upbringing and Greek mythology warns us about. Mark Broatch, author of Word to the Wise, introduced me to Muphry’s Law, which states that any letter to the editor smugly pointing out a solecism or spelling mistake will be guaranteed to contain at least one error of its own. To be ambitious is to invite the universe to take us down a peg. The hugely famous pop singer Cilla Black told of going home to Liverpool, where a woman shouted at her across the road, “You’re not a patch on your mother!”
There are other reasons we don’t talk openly about ambition. It’s loaded with negative connotations. If ambition was a GIF, it would be that one of Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass. It’s competitive, money-grubbing, morally bankrupt. It drives a Ferrari and has a holiday home it uses for two weeks of the year.
Another thorn is that commercial success is seen as incompatible with creative integrity. In John Mortimer’s novel, Felix in the Underworld, the eponymous literary writer hero keeps being paired up at book tours with a bestselling “lady author” who is obviously Jilly Cooper. While the signing queues for Felix can be tallied on one hand, those for the lady author are out the door. One of the novel’s refrains is the backhanded compliment that “she certainly does her research”. The message is clear: to sell en masse, you need to appeal to the masses, and that is not the territory of good art.
Ambition also seems out of step with the collegiality of New Zealand’s writing communities. The groups I’m part of, at least, are sincere in their support. We appreciate different talents, and celebrate each other’s successes. Above all, there’s no sense of members being stack ranked in terms of merit.
But not talking openly about ambition is to deny that we have dreams and aspirations, and desires that burn like fever in the night. We don’t all have the same dreams: some of us want to create lasting works of art, others want to be financially self-sufficient, and at least one of us wants to win the Comedy Women in Print prize. But dreams we all have, and why should we feel embarrassed about sharing them?
Not sharing also means we suppress our baser emotions, and I’m pretty sure keeping that stuff inside leads to compromised immune systems, premature aging and buying items from the Innovations catalogue. To feel bad about failing, falling short, or even ambivalence at another’s success means we’re human. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
I don’t write with my ambitions front and centre in my mind. They emerge when the book has a firm publication date, and I have to think about publicity and marketing, and fixing my website. To have a plan, I first need to set goals. I usually start with wanting to sell a book somewhere in the world every nine seconds like Lee Child, enjoy the fantasy, and then work my way back down.
I say never be ashamed of your ambitions, and better too high than too low. At one writers’ conference, a speaker was talking up the value of water as a creative stimulant. A bestselling Australian author remarked, “Now I know why I built a house with a moat.”
The rest of us sat up, all thinking the same thing: even if a moat wasn’t to our personal taste, we wanted the kind of success that would allow us to BUILD A GODDAMN MOAT IF WE FELT LIKE IT!
When I build my house with a moat, you can all come and stay.
What You Wish For by Catherine Robertson (Black Swan, $38) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.