Last weekend Endeavour republished The White Rajah.
The White Rajah was the first book I ever wrote. When I wrote it, I had no idea that it was going to turn out to be the first of a trilogy: the John Williamson Chronicles.
Like many people starting their first novel, I wanted to write something very serious – not, perhaps, the Great British Novel, but definitely a meaningful book. Whether I succeeded or not is really for you to judge, but publishers certainly told me that it was too serious for a first book. My agent urged me to go away and write something more commercial. The result was the Burke books, which Endeavour republished over the last few weeks and which I hope you are enjoying.
I was worried that people who had read The White Rajah would be a bit thrown by the change of tone that came with the move to James Burke. I wrote a blog piece about this, which I felt the time was amazingly self-indulgent and I did wonder if I should publish it. It turned out to be one of the more popular things I’ve posted. So now I’m reposting it although my concern this time is that after the relatively light-hearted (if bloody) adventures of James Burke the rather heavier themes of John Williamson might come as a shock.
Apples and oranges
Graham Greene divided his work into ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels’. Some people find this an unsatisfactory split. All fiction, they say, should entertain. Suggesting that some have a higher purpose and are ‘novels’ and not mere ‘entertainment’ is presumptious and unhelpful.
I think the separation can be useful. If we sit down to read a book by John Grisham, we have different expectations from if we are tackling John Updike. It helps to know what we might have coming. At the end of a long day, more people will want to turn to Wilbur Smith than Salman Rushdie. The problem comes when the same author writes two different kinds of books. Some use a pseudonym to separate the two sides of their output but, as J.K. Rowling has discovered, that doesn’t always work.
I must declare a personal interest. Accent are now publishing a new edition of The White Rajah to follow Burke in the Land of Silver and I wish I had some way to warn people not to expect the second book to be anything like the first.The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Like all first novels, it has its flaws but, like, I suspect, many first novels, it was trying very hard to be a serious book. It’s based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak and the model for Conrad’s Lord Jim. Like Conrad’s protagonist, Brooke was a flawed hero. I’ve tried to use him and his personal relationships to say something about British colonial rule. Nowadays, we generally like heroes to be basically good people and we think colonialism was essentially bad. What I try to do in The White Rajah is to suggest that life is a bit more complicated than that. The result is a book that I hope people will find reasonably exciting (there’s battles and pirates and evil plots) but which is, I have to admit, hardly a bundle of laughs. I hope it’s entertaining but I don’t think of it as primarily an entertainment. Graham Greene might not have thought it a particularly good novel, but I think he would accept that a novel is what it set out to be.
I hope that by now you might have read Burke in the Land of Silver, so you can judge for yourself how far it succeeds in its primary intention, which was simply to entertain. James Burke (an unfortunately similar name to the Rajah’s) was also a real person, but his adventures are just that: intrigue and derring-do set in exciting places with wicked foes and beautiful women. I hope that the story is not without some more serious content, but my main aim was to send you away entertained.
There is, I hope, room for both kinds of book in the world. Indeed, I fervently hope that there’s room for both on your bookshelves (or, more likely, your Kindle). Please buy both, read them and, I hope, enjoy them. Just don’t expect them to be the same.