Posted by on Jul 10, 2008 in critique, hilary mantel | 9 Comments

Me and him and Hilary Mantel

A writer rang me today to ask why I was giving away all these free critiques. Didn’t I know I was undermining the work of professional editors and writing teachers? Wasn’t I creating a culture of dependency on myself? And who was I, anyway, to think my comments any better than anybody else’s?

Why is it always men who say things like that? And men who write non-fiction to boot? Anyway, I told him to go and boil his head.

What I could have said is that Hilary Mantel once dreamed a whole short story (read about it here) and, amazing as that is, there is something even more amazing about Hilary which (in the qualia sense of things) is a thing that only I can know. It’s how bloody decent she is to other writers.

I met her a few years ago at a reading and acted like a complete arse: I talked rubbish, I dropped her bag, I generally pratted about like a second-rate clown with an anxiety disorder and she, sensibly, largely ignored me. She did sign a book for me, and I wrote to her, via her agent, to say how nice she’d been to the complete idiot who so utterly failed to help her through that particular reading.

She wrote back. She remembered me (and much more nicely than I deserved). I pinned her card to my cork board and didn’t contact her for a year. A year. Then I contacted her again. She remembered me – I know she did because she mentioned something I’d told her at our first meeting.

She didn’t have to be nice. She didn’t have to write back. She certainly doesn’t have to remember the things we discuss on the rare occasions I contact her (only when she’s been in the public eye, as in the Guardian article above), but she does. And she takes me seriously. Hilary is insightful, witty, formidable and just … fantastic. Gushy and imprecise I know, but that’s how she is. I am in awe and half in love with her, and in awe and fully in love with her novels.

Compared to that, a critique or two is nothing. But if it helps to make another writer feel they are being taken seriously in this rather backstabby writing world, then I do it with pleasure. What goes around, comes around. What came around, for me, was one of the greatest writers of our generation. I limit my contact so as not to annoy her, I treasure it more than almost anything else, and I can never give back enough critiques to thank the universe for introducing me to Hilary.

So boil your head, Michael!


  1. Anonymous
    10th July 2008

    Great post Kay.

    Mark Hubbard (a male 🙂 )

  2. Tania Hershman
    10th July 2008

    Ditto, and amen to that. Thanks, Kay, great post. I can’t believe someone told you not to give away “free” critiques. Disgusting. Ignore them.

  3. Mark Thwaite
    11th July 2008

    What an awful world it would be (well, even more awful than it is I mean!) if one wasn’t allowed freely to give!

    One of the very best things about the Web is this culture of the gift: people do share (knowledge, expertise, time) on the web and god bless ’em all for doing so.

    Go boil your head, Michael, indeed!

  4. Nik's Blog
    11th July 2008

    Great post, Kay. I’ve seen quite a number of examples of that kind of ridiculous attitiude. As Mark says, what’s the problem with giving/helping? Do you know, I think a few of the people are against this kind of thing because they want to keep the mystique – god forbid other people can learn the secrets of writing – and FOR FREE. Keep ’em down, that way proper writers, like them, look better and cleverer. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

    Hobble, hobble.

  5. Jim Murdoch
    12th July 2008

    We are all at different stages in our writing careers. You’ve started to make a bit of headway and which one of us isn’t pleased for you? But not that long ago no one knew you and you’d published next to nothing and even a scribbled message from an editor on the back of a rejection note gave you a high for a couple of days (I’m projecting here) and that’s what we all have to remember. I am one of the writers whose book you very kindly reviewed. It was a favour, yes, but before you even got the book you pointed out privately that you would review it on its merits which you did and that’s the only kind of review that’s worth anything.

    You reviewed my book and then I went out and reviewed Rachel Fox’s book and Adam Philip’s sampler. This is what we do. We writers need to look after each other. And the bottom line is that the professional editors don’t have the time to review all the books that are coming out, there are simply too many. As for our qualifications as reviewers, I never saw an O-Level in ‘Book Reviewing’ when I was at school. Most reviewers I’ve come across are people like you and I, people who have read a lot, maybe written a bit too. You did right to tell that guy to go and boil his head.

  6. lorrie porter
    12th July 2008

    How can anyone learn to write if they can’t learn from other writers? It’s important to share knowledge, that’s why writing was invented in the first place. Glad to hear you’re not swayed by narrow minded attitudes.

  7. Dave King
    14th July 2008

    Excellent. Keep the critiques going.

  8. Jo
    15th July 2008

    yeah, you do what you like! i’m sure you get a lot out of doing it. When I do critiques as part of group I belong to, I learn so much about the craft of writing and that’s priceless.

  9. Vanessa Gebbie
    16th July 2008

    I learned, and still do, from other writers who are generous enough to share their thoughts, feedback, critiques, natter… everything.

    And I pass that on. Makes the world go round, dunnit? if we all charged for everything, …wow. We’d shrivel and die.


Leave a Reply