You’ve probably, at some point in your Oxford life, heard of the Failed Novelists Society, whether it’s through the occasional review in one of the student papers, or finding yourself signed up to their Freshers’ Fair mailing list. If you haven’t come across them before, they are an open creative writing group in Oxford. Welcoming anyone from undergraduates to tutors to townies, every Sunday at 2 o’clock, the group gather in Teddy Hall welfare room and show their work. Pieces are read and discussed, and feedback is offered.
We met with Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach, their President, to find out more about a group of people who, it emerges, are completely unselfconscious and just love writing. Dòmhnall puts three small books on the table, admitting that they look hilariously self-published, but that’s just how it has to be. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s part of the charm. Two of the books are anthologies. “Every year we do an anthology, which is partly a celebration of, I’d like to say, the best writing in Oxford. We have prose, poetry, sometimes drama, everything. I think it’s the only Oxford-only creative writing anthology that takes everything.” It allows people to celebrate their work and to “see it in print in a way that you can have a party and celebrate it with your friends, because sometimes you submit to a magazine, you get the magazine in your pidge, and then that’s it”.
The group has just published a new work, The Failed Novel, a book which was produced collaboratively. We wonder about the drive behind this. “We are, of course, failed novelists, and degrees and things get in the way of writing your own full novel, so you can always say you’ve written a novel if you’ve written it with other people.”
It’s been done before by the group, in various, hilarious, ways. Once they did a ‘choose your own adventure’ type story, the “turn to page 63 as the monster attacks you” kind of thing. “I’m told,” says Dòmhnall, “that someone nearly failed their degree trying to edit that one!” Another time, they tried handing chapters on, so you would read the previous one and then write the next yourself.
How does the newest collaborative effort work? “This year we realized that the problem with writing a collaborative novel in term time is people have so much else on, so we tried to make the easiest, well, most encouraging, way of making a novel. We’ve done a sort of Arthurian quest narrative like the Holy Grail. It’s completely ridiculous, but great fun. The idea is that every character can hear a noise, but they don’t know the source of the noise, so the quest is to find the source, and you get a wonderful array of variations on that.” It does sound a lot of fun, but there is still the lingering question of how they managed to keep it a unified work. Dòmhnall explains, “The idea is that characters from some chapters will reappear in others – the books has involved a lot of talking to each other, trying to get things together. It’s not really much of a novel, in that there isn’t much of a central plot driving it – it’s the central theme and characters that unify it. The big gimmick is there’s one character who appears in every chapter who’s on his own quest in search of a yoghurt where you take the lid off and there’s no clod on the bottom of it – completely ridiculous!
This is primarily just a bit of fun!” This is what really comes across about the group: it’s a place where anyone can come, share their writing, not take themselves too seriously, and just do it for fun. “We’re quite evangelical about trying not to make it cool.” A lot of these things tend to be self-consciously hip – the Failed Novelists successfully avoid this, and in doing so actually sound incredibly cool and unselfconscious. Sometimes they have ‘juvenilia nights’ – sessions reading out their angsty teenage poetry, or awful childhood epics. Sometimes they get experimental – once a guy took Kubla Khan and entered it into Google Translate, putting it through every language until it finally came back to English. “It’s really strange – you do get this weird echo of Kubla Khan, you can tell it’s that, but it also sounds incredibly weird.”
And yet, this environment is also a great place to get real feedback on work. “Some creative writing groups in Oxford – not naming names – ask you to submit applications and things, which I just feel is almost a defence mechanism. The good thing about letting anybody turn up is complete strangers can criticize you and there’s none of that pressure which comes with being a cliquey tight-knit group of people sitting in an independent bookshop.”
The Failed Novelists sounds like a wonderfully relaxed, open place to share work and receive comments. In all, a really great idea – we’re definitely going along to the next meeting.