Vesna Main: “Literature is art, not a commodity”

Vesna Main on her Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel Good Day?, blurring fiction and non-fiction, and why the classic realist novel doesn’t resonate with her.

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Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia, and lives between London and Poitou-Charentes, France. She is the author of a short-story collection, Temptation: A User’s Guide (2018) and two novels – A Woman with No Clothes On (2008) and Good Day?, published by Salt and shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.

The idea for the novel, she says, “came from a radio programme about the trauma suffered by a woman whose husband had visited prostitutes for many years of their marriage”. That seed of thought became the central topic discussed by her book’s two characters – a writer and her reader – in a slick novel-within-a-novel comprised entirely of dialogue.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 

For me, Édouard Manet’s dictum that painting should “be of our time” applies to literature, too. However, mainstream publishing in Britain, together with the entire industry of agents, reviewers and booksellers, favours traditional novels – hardly “of our time”.

The Goldsmiths Prize, with its focus on “the spirit of invention”, has played a crucial role in demonstrating the continued vitality and versatility of the novel. When Eimear McBride won six years ago, I remember thinking it was wonderful news for the development of contemporary literature in Britain: it represented the recognition of a different type of writing and thereby pushed the boundaries of what the novel can be in rich and exciting directions.

Besides, as this year’s shortlist shows, the judges are not afraid to choose authors from independent publishers, who often take risks but who find it difficult to obtain reviews in the press or even to have their work stocked in bookshops. The prize is essential in supporting their work. 

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

For me, literature is art, not a commodity and, as art, it is important that it extends the reader’s horizon, explores the liminal and generates questions. As a writer and as a reader, I am interested in texts that are demanding, that make me work, and that do not underestimate my intelligence.

I would like to think that when a reader finishes a book, they are a different person from the one who started it. The same should be true for a writer.

Good Day? is formed only of dialogue. What freedoms did not writing a typical narrative offer up to you?

It was not so much a question of freedoms, rather what seemed to work with the subject matter. The dialogue allows a dialectical examination of a number of topics at different levels, such as prostitution, feminism, writing and private lives, writing and gender, literature and society, etc.

Did you ever consider writing the novel in a more traditional form?

I did write two very traditional versions, two complete novels, one with a first-person and another with a third-person narrator. I was unhappy with both. The classic realist novel doesn’t resonate with me. It belongs to the positivism of nineteenth century, to the world of enlightenment certainties. We live in different times, and as readers and writers, we cannot pretend that modernism didn’t happen.

However, I was aware that too much emphasis on the form, or narratorial playfulness, would detract from what I considered to be a serious social issue. I didn’t know how to reconcile the two: the politics and the form.

One morning, on my daily swim, I hit upon the idea of creating a frame around the main text in which a Writer and a Reader discuss the novel she is writing, and Good Day? was born. I wrote most of it on a laptop in a hospital at the bedside of my seriously ill daughter. Since I had the story and a whole gallery of characters already developed, the process was mostly mechanical. I simply typed the words the Reader and the Writer were telling me. Eventually, I left out many of the characters and episodes from the traditional versions and the final draft was much shorter than the original text.  

Your characters grapple with the question of how much a novel should take from real life – often at the expense of the real people it is based on. Is this something you have been concerned with in your own writing? 

I think it is always an issue and I am not thinking of writers who use their lives in an undisguised way, such as Annie Ernaux or Karl Ove Knausgaard. Like everyone else, writers have families and friends, and our stories, even when they are not immediately recognisable, come from our lives and our thoughts.

I am reminded of two writers in a David Lodge novel who are about to have sex; before they begin, both are concerned to extract a promise from the other not to use whatever happens in their writing. They readily agree but neither keeps their word.

As a writer, you do not wish to hurt your nearest and dearest but sometimes stories are given priority. As the Writer in Good Day? says, when her husband protests against her using a sentence he has just uttered, “No one would know. You’re too sensitive”. Her novel is more important to her than the embarrassment she risks causing him. I can identify with that position.

The novel raises questions about how feminism and sex work should sit alongside each other. How can writers, readers and sex workers better further this discussion?

It would be presumptuous of me to believe that my novel could spark a discussion. But perhaps a reader here and there might question their views. One of the male reviewers wrote in a blog that he became very aware of his responses and wondered whether he, too, like the Reader, was responding in “some inappropriate patriarchal way”. I found that very satisfying.

Other readers might question their class prejudices when they see interactions between Tanya and Anna, as the former feels patronised. There the text is satirising the middle-class feminists who may not relate to Tanya while, at the same time, the story brings another group of victims – middle-class women – into the discussion. 

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Art and literature are most important to me, but I cannot single out one piece of work. I am a great admirer of Manet and there are references to his work in the novel. Bach’s cello music transports me to another world, and I have donated that passion to the Writer and she, in turn, gives it to Anna. As for literature, perhaps unconsciously, at the back of my mind I had Robert Pinget’s L’Inquisitoire, a wonderful novel in dialogue.

How important is Good Day?’s existence as a novel, rather than any other form – say a radio or stage play – to a reader’s understanding of the content of the book?

The narrative style of the novel lends itself directly to a reading between two voices but there is a distinction between a dialogue and a script. I think the radio play format would allow the listener to become more aware of the conflict between the Writer and the Reader and how that conflict directly impacts on their marriage. However, with the novel, the reader can pause and consider what’s happening, move backwards and forwards. The novel within the novel would work as a film or stage play!

You appear in the novel yourself – as “V. Main”, a “no-name writer”. Why?

That was a little joke on my part, a response to the fact that texts by independent publishers, such as the wonderful Salt, rarely elicit reviews outside the blogosphere. On a more serious note, I’ve always loved the blurring of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, such as in those fascinating medieval paintings where the painter paints their eyes on the picture or when Hitchcock’s iconic image walks through a frame. He is both himself, a film director, a mortal and a fictional character.

The reference you mention is followed by “some foreign woman”, another joke and perhaps a response to the current political situation. I’ve lived in Britain for more than 40 years and recently, for the first time, I was dismissively referred to as “an immigrant”. It hurt at first but then I realised that that is what I am and I think we should reclaim “foreign” and “immigrant” and use them with pride. A few reviewers of my previous book, Temptation, referred to me as a Croatian writer, which I found puzzling. I was born in Croatia but I have not published anything about Croatia and I write only in English. I lived in Africa, too, and these days I spend part of the year in France but have never identified with a nation.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Again, it’s difficult to single out one text. I am torn between Anna Burns’s Milkman, parts of which I was privileged to read as work in progress, and two of my all-time favourites, the wonderful WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Gabriel Josipovici’s beautiful Moo Pak. I could read them again and again. If there is an afterlife, these are the books I want to take with me, so please put copies in my coffin. 

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.