My Failed Novel – A Documentary for Writers

Occasionally you can find television gold quite accidentally. Whilst reviewing the offerings on boxsets and catchup sections on my Sky box, I did exactly that. Enter Giles Coren and his, in his own words, failed novel.


The series was covering a range of failures and this particular episode focused on restaurant critic Coren’s first and only novel, Winkler, winner The Bad Sex Award. Armed with a £30000 advance earned off the back of his already existent profile, Coren wrote his literary ‘masterpiece’ and the results were so bad it turned him away from writing another. Reviews were poor and he learns during the programme that the sales were 771 in hardback and 1400 in paperback. While acceptable for most debuts, not for one with such a handsome advance. From the perspective of the publisher, it was an unmitigated disaster.


The documentary was fascinating, talking to industry players from all sides each of whom offered insights worthy of their own documentary. An editor of a major publisher openly stated that “Quite a lot of books that are published are no good, let alone the ones that don’t get published.” Seeing literary agents having their slush-pile review meeting was entirely enlightening if not a little frightening.


A bunch of students theorised blandly over where Coren went wrong, while a book group took on Winkler and confessed to finding it too challenging.One of the initially awkward moments was when Coren visited a reviewer who completely slated his efforts and advised Coren that he had only “read some of it”.


Then there were the authors. David Mitchell, Rose Tremain, Hanif Kureishi and William Nicholson have their opinions. Sister of Boris, Rachel Johnson at her lavish book launch advised against being too creative and going against the grain of expectation. Jeffery Archer was frustratingly arrogant, gloating over his “God-given talent” and Coren’s lack of it.


It was Coren’s own reflections that provided the most insightful and touching moments of the documentary. It was difficult not to want him to do what we all do must do open writing something upon which nobody else shares our view of it being a complete work of genius. Dust yourself off, and try again. It was perhaps his deprecated view tinged with humour at the failure that made it such an enticing watch. Any writer should watch this, I left it feeling a little frightened at what might lay ahead but nevertheless inspired to give it my best shot.



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