General, The Writing Life

REVIEW: @SkyArts – Cautionary tale of Giles Coren “My Failed Novel”



How can a novel written by The Times journalist-celebrity-critic flop?

This is the question. And it is answered very well in this TV programme on Sky Arts, Mon 29 February 2016: Giles Coren: My Failed Novel. Every writer, published, unpublished, successful, unsuccessful, commercial, literary – should watch it. It has all the answers. It is packed to the eyeballs with information and advice. And they are all shown, not told.

Giles Coren

had his dream come true too easily. Then it became a nightmare. He was taunted by bad reviews and poor sales. Every writer dreams of writing a novel, a first novel at that, and being published. What happens when the crit comes ten years too late?

Giles comes across very well – honest, modest and humble. I have always loved his restaurant reviews, especially those of Chinese food as I enjoy discovering what he knows and does not know. In My Failed Novel, he bares his soul, shared and gave away vital statistics,  the facts and figures that plague all writers and readers – can you make money writing? There are interviews with the top editors of top publishing houses, bestselling authors both literary and commercial fiction such as Jeffrey Archer, Rachel Johnson (despite being the mayor’s sister, cannot afford to buy hamburgers at her own book launch which costs £3,000 in drinks), Rose Tremain, Hanif Kureishi, David Mitchell, William Nicholson.

Giles also had his first 5,000 words crit by the students at UEA. He even assumed he could simply just do the course to improve his writing until a student pointed out – you have to get on it first! Through much difficulty and competition, I got through to the interview stage in 2004/05 for the Creative Writing MA, but I did not get offered a place. Therefore I have always remembered I have no right to anything. Writing is disappointment in every way possible. I am like any normal person, girl next door, man on the street. Nothing falls into or onto my lap of existence. Nothing in the arts can be taken for granted. There is no given, no polemic, no history. I only know hard work.

The facts and figures

were clear. His failed novel is called Winkler and has been described by the critic Stephen Bayley as “ocean-going, lavatorial awfulness”. How about that for a three-word pitch?

Sold: 771 in hardback, 1400 in paperback. (To be successful you have to sell at least four figures in HB says Howard Jacobson. Or 27 million says Jeffrey Archer for PB copies.)

Agent: Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown

Advance: £30,000

Book launch: none (From £30,000 advance surely there was spare change for a book launch? Couldn’t someone from his restaurant connections do him a two hundred pound deal? This bit was not expounded upon, so I don’t know what the answer is)

The publishers let him down

The agents and publishers took a gamble and took him for granted (see above, first para, nothing in the arts can be taken for granted). Yet this is not some anonymous aircon mechanic from Leicester. This is Giles Coren. This is someone who had top private education all his life, “everything served up on a plate” in his own words, someone who went to Oxford to read English. This is not just anybody. He is very well-connected. I have no connections yesterday, today or tomorrow. Even if I was cleaning the Queen’s loo I would still have ZERO connections. But the publishers did something wrong. They allowed the book to come out with only two drafts. They did not invest enough into Giles. They did not make him work hard for another two years writing and re-writing, which is basically the life of writing. They thought that the name already was the investment.

Lifestyle of Jeffrey Archer

In his gilt mansion, Jeffrey Archer explains that it’s routine, routine, routine. He works from 6 to 8am, 10-12, 2-4pm, 6-8pm. (Presumably he has servants to get his dinner ready, fix the leaky radiator, boiler, gutter and whatever else is leaky, clean the whole mansion daily and to wash and iron his clothes so he is fully able to write during those times undisturbed.) He does 14 drafts before it is ready for his editor’s eyes.

The interview with Rose Tremain

To be a writer, you need three things, discipline and imagination being two of them, I cannot remember the third. But she says that you can be taught to write better. By being an editor to her students at University of East Anglia, she is actually their editor.

The interview with William Nicholson

I found most poignant and moving. There is something visceral about writing, he said.  You can only do this with maturity. He published his first book when he was in his fifties. He is now 67 and only now he is getting there, getting to the peak of his writing. I think this applies to literary fiction. Therefore there is still plenty of time for Giles. He can still aim to write a bestseller when he is 55. There is something trite and untrue when writers write with pomp and conviction when they have not experienced life, not life in bars and clubs, but the life of profound emotions (to use the eternal cliche, the human condition). Young writers can only imagine true, deep emotions and the reality of existence. They simply cannot practise what they preach. This is why many young writers write fan fiction of the paranormal, fantasy and horror ilk. I also have read somewhere that writing is an old person’s profession.

In summary:

All the writers said the same thing. Discipline, hard work, acceptance of failure, just write a damned good book, books sell by word-of-mouth, win a prize. Ben Okri said that winning a prize increases a book’s sales from 1,000 to 50,000 overnight. If you don’t like failure, you should give up and try something else, said William Nicholson.

What happened in the last ten years

A lot, said Coren. Firstly, although it wasn’t mentioned, it was shown – children. Secondly, social media. In fairness, out of the two things that happened, children take up far more time than social media. If we didn’t have social media we would be better parents. If we didn’t have children we would not even need social media. It takes care of social life for those who do not have social life anymore. Giles has 183,000 Twitter followers. If conversion rate is 1%, he could be selling 1830 copies. So 23% more sales in PB if he had written the book now. But this is just if, if, if.

Bad Sex Award

The camera shows him playing with his children in his perfectly manicured garden in North London, very near the broken stone foot covered in moss that he received for his Bad Sex Award – it even had sandals on, like some part of a Greek god. ( I did not know there was such a thing as Bad Sex Award, I thought it was a joke, an Eng Lit myth. If there was indeed such an award, wouldn’t EL James’ garden be totally littered with these trip hazards of stone amputated feet complete with gladiator sandals? Therefore there can’t be such a thing.)


Winkler was written in 2005 and there was no social media, even more so that the book has to sell itself. Nowadays I see that you can sell any rubbish, not just books, if you tweeted like a robot and have followers in the millions. Even if it is only for a short time. As long as you can follow up with a box set. So if this is his dream, then he must not give up. Giles needs to follow up the TV programme with a novel! That’s a novel idea, The 183,000 followers won’t be disappointed.


was positive. Be mature. Write a great book. Readers will know if it’s great, they will love it and they will come. Since you will not know if they will love it and they will come, you need to write for yourself, for love, without pity, without shame, but with humility, sheer determination, hard work and the constant quest for perfection.

No hashtag will ever help to sell it.







photo credit: <a href=”″>The butcher story</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>


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