The Godfather: Peter Corris on competition
Do popular writers in particular, but other writers in general, compete with each other? This thought was prompted by a quote from historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, which I’ll return to.
Did Georgette Heyer compete with Baroness Orczy for top spot in the Regency romance market? Did Patrick O’Brian feel he was in competition with CS Forester for the laurels in naval history? We don’t know.
Although Queens of Crime Ruth Rendell and PD James professed to be friends, such were their political differences (they sat on opposite sides in the House of Lords) one can’t help imagining they might have run an eye over the bestseller lists to see who was polling better.
Certainly Ernest Hemingway was in competition with F Scott Fitzgerald and other contemporaries. There was a significant moment of cooperation when Hemingway took Fitzgerald’s advice and cut the beginning of the draft of The Sun Also Rises (1926) for the better, but there was competition in terms of writing and manhood. When Hemingway won the Nobel Prize he said it should have come much earlier, implying that he thought other writers had unfairly pipped him.
Raymond Chandler was in overt competition with Dashiell Hammett, of whom he said that he could do some things well but not others. He was an antagonist of James M Cain (certainly at his best Chandler’s equal), whose writing he claimed had the smell of a goat about it. There is also more than a touch of competition about Chandler’s disparagement in one of his letters of the work of someone who was to become the best of the ‘post Chandlerians’ – Ross Macdonald.
Browsing in search of my favourite recreational reading, historical novels, I came across a quotation from the prolific and phenomenally successful Bernard Cornwell about a writer I had never heard of, Simon Scarrow. Cornwell, whose work I admire, especially his 24-book series on the exploits of Rifleman Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic Wars, wrote, ‘I don’t need this kind of competition.’ Competitive but charitable. This intrigued me and I looked up Scarrow. I discovered that he had many novels to his credit including a four-book ‘Revolution’ series dealing with the lives of Napoleon and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
I greatly enjoyed the audio version of the first book Young Bloods (2006) and the second The Generals (2007) and I am embarked on the third, Fire and Sword (2009). Napoleon and Wellington were born in the same year; their careers ran parallel for long periods and Scarrow has skilfully blended their stories together. Much invention no doubt about their personal lives but fascinating and well-researched detail about politics in France and England and campaigns in Europe, Africa and India so far. For anyone who lamented the closing down of the Sharpe series, I warmly recommend Scarrow. I’ll certainly move on to the fourth book, The Fields of Death (2010) and probably to his Roman Britain series.
That’s the great thing about historical novelists – their material is infinite and once they get going there’s no stopping them.