Anthony Burgess: The Ninety Nine Novels podcast

Anthony Burgess (25 February 1917 – 22 November 1993) was a prolific writer who produced poetry, plays and broadcasts while also building his reputation as a literary critic and linguist. He came pretty late to fiction, turning 39 when Time for a Tiger was published in 1956. Thirty or so novels later, he is best known for his dystopian satire, A Clockwork Orange, which would gain cult status when Stanley Kubrick adapted it for the screen in 1971. This seems a bit reductive, particularly given that he composed over 250 musical works over 60 years. These varied in genre and style and included symphonies, concertos and opera.

Burgess came from a musical family. His mother was a Music Hall singer and dancer and his father played piano. He once wrote: ‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side’. In this blog I am going to do neither and instead turn to a very specific piece of his non-fiction published in 1984.

Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 — A Personal Choice is a pretty self-explanatory title and covers a 44-year span between 1939 and 1983, starting with James Joyce and finishing with Norman Mailer. Some authors get two mentions whereas Aldous Huxley pulls off a hat trick with After Many a Summer (1939), Ape and Essence (1948), and Island (1962).

Burgess was a vociferous reader who famously reviewed 350 novels in just over two years at the Yorkshire Post. Presumably he didn’t sleep or eat during that time. His background in journalism and broad knowledge of literature led him to pen Ninety-Nine novels in two weeks. Like all reading lists, it’s intended to provoke discussion and debate – hence the absence of the hundredth novel. ‘If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic’ he writes.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester are currently running a podcast series, with each episode dedicated to a book on the list. I was invited to talk about Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). The book was the first Pan paperback to sell a million copies, and like A Clockwork Orange, would forever become synonymous with the author.

In his introduction to Ninety-Nine Novels, Burgess says, ‘I believe that the primary substance I have considered in making my selection is human character. It is the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will’. This is certainly true of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Sillitoe’s debut novel who craves pleasure at every opportunity, no matter who he hurts along the way: “I’m me and nobody else, and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.”

‘As novels are about the ways in which human beings behave,’ writes Burgess ‘they tend to imply a judgement of behaviour’. What makes Saturday Night and Sunday Morning so authentic is the complete lack of authorial judgement. Sillitoe describes everything as it is. There’s no pandering to sensibilities or fear of moral outrage. This is why publishers originally turned the book down – because they felt the working classes needed a more edifying narrative than the violent environment Sillitoe portrayed. To put this into context, John Braine’s Room at the Top is on Burgess’s list, which Peter Green described as like a ‘vicar’s tea party’ in comparison.

Burgess isn’t completely effusive, describing Sillitoe’s writing as ‘verbose and sprawling, undisciplined’. Although I partly agree with this, I don’t see it as a fault. Sillitoe was a self-taught writer. He didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He figured things out for himself. It’s this that gives his writing the rough edges and authenticity.

Some writers are so obsessed with form that you become aware that you’re reading a very well written book. With Sillitoe it’s different. You’re not reading a book. You’re stood at the lathe. You can smell the factory. You can hear people gossiping about you. It’s a different kind of verisimilitude that’s only possible when you write with your ear.

The podcast is hosted by Graham Foster who is the former editor of Transmission. He was one of the first people to publish one of my short stories (The Loneliness of the Dartford Toll Operator) – about a woman who touches 1000’s of hands a day as money is exchanged yet never gets to know anyone on a meaningful level. You can tell it’s an old story (from the mid Noughties) because now there are no toll operators. You have to pay in advance and register your number plate. I found out the hard way last year when I was fined. But that’s another story.

You can listen to the  Ninety-Nine Novels podcast on Soundcloud

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Engine House, Chorlton Mill, 3 Cambridge Street, Manchester. M1 5BY

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham City of Literature website on 27 June 2022.

Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce  

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on an online graphic novel serial called Dawn of the Unread which celebrated Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this mantra in Leicester today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce, Sue Townsend, Jean Binta Breeze, and other writers, have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester  

This blog also appears on the Dawn of the Unread blog