Sooner or later, every novelist I know has asked themselves, what is the point of keeping on? This question, always a painful one, has loomed ever larger as the effects of the recession bite deep into publishing lists. At the beginning of last year, horror stories abounded about well-known authors having contracts cancelled on the slightest pretext. Being a single day late on delivery was sufficient grounds for a cancellation. Now, even top agents feel relief at extracting advances for successful, well-known authors.
If you happen to be one of hundreds of so-called ‘mid-list’ authors, life has never felt more grim. Few of us have ever been able to live off our income from books, but now, if you have never written a best-seller, been on Richard and Judy, had a TV or film adaptation or been short-listed for a major prize, the future has become absolutely horrible. You can’t go back to a day job and wait for the bad times to pass because suddenly the day jobs don’t exist either: journalism, which has always been the default setting for writers, has either slashed its freelance rates by 2550or vanished altogether as magazines and newspapers have folded. Teaching, the other authorial standby, is besieged with eager new applicants and is so hedged about with testing and regulations that anything approaching creativity is almost impossible.
The top end of fiction has always been about fashion and like fashion is largely immune to the recession. People will go on buying their Robert Harris, Ian McEwan and Sarah Waters no matter what – and that is as it should be because these almost always deliver several hours of seriously good fun. However, there are quite a few others who, if given a chance, could give them a run for their money, and others who are interesting and even important voices but are no longer getting heard.
You have to be careful about railing about your bad luck in life, and writing is no exception. All writers draw on a reserve of optimism that, in a normal person, would probably count as insanity. At the beginning of an author’s career, even the most cautious can find themselves waking at 3am declaiming the speech they will make on accepting the Booker Prize. Even the kind of writer who is much more interested in other people than themselves has to feel that they have something special to say, otherwise, why bother to get published?
For most, these dreams are quickly dispelled on publication. The world does not want more books. If lucky, the new author gets either benign encouragement or (more rarely) its opposite. If unlucky, they get nothing. Most books aren’t even reviewed, and barely appear for two weeks in a bookshop.
It is at this point, and not before, that the author asks themselves for the first but not the last time, what IS the point in going on? It certainly isn’t, as Freud claimed, for fame, money and the love of beautiful women (or men). Nor is it because writing makes us happy people. Writing for a living is like banging your head against the proverbial brick wall: wonderful when you stop. Actually, in a deeper sense, the professional and the amateur have this in common: nothing beats having written a book. Yes, writing is a vocation, but it’s also a neurosis. You start to wonder whether anything you’ve ever done is any good.
This is not a bad question to ask, as long as it doesn’t become too self-destructive. To not ask it is absolutely fatal.
There are novelists, who shall remain nameless, who are notorious for thinking themselves above ordinary mortals and touched with genius. They have had one or two successes and are now living examples of how rude, monstrous and ugly the untrammelled ego becomes. (Sadly, almost all are men, but then men do win about five times more prizes than women.)
Failure is actually the single experience common to all mankind and there is some slight consolation that the more bloated with success any artist becomes, the more remote they are likely to become from the source of genuine inspiration. Those who are instantly successful always labour under a terrible curse: from then on, they know almost nothing about the rest of the world. Writers need to experience the failure of their dreams. What would Dickens have been without the bottle factory, Trollope without the Post Office and Austen without her spinsterdom? The novel is the mature person’s art and the art of people who have known despair, humiliation, rejection and above all failure. “Fail again, fail better,” as Beckett put it.
Look at any major writer’s oeuvre and you’ll see books so bad that they would long ago have been forgotten had not the genius eventually matured. Is any play as awful as Titus Andronicus? (Yes, commercially successful – but still an atrocious play.) Would we read Sense and Sensibility without what came after? Some, like Lampedusa and Harper Lee had the wisdom or the leisure to write just one, perfect book. Most of us write a ‘heroic failure’ (as the Guardian, in its usual kindly way, termed my own latest book.)
A great many first novels are not even thinly disguised autobiography but fantasy about our lives as we would like them to be. There’s nothing reprehensible about such fantasies, and genre writers make a very respectable living if they tap into the kind we all share. But it’s when you shed this kind of illusion that you can potentially become the real thing. Although the days in which almost anyone could publish a novel or get a two-book deal are gone, it’s when you come to write your second, third and fourth book that you improve. Nobody can possibly succeed without a whole raft of those heroic failures. Evolution itself is full of creatures that did not survive or that were just stepping stones in the continual path to becoming something new. Or it may be quite otherwise; an amusing new book, Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, (Frances Lincoln at ?9.99,) shows how very wrong even authors can be when judging each other’s success.
So what exactly counts as success, and what kind of success do you want? You need to have this pretty clear in your own mind, or you’ll end up as pitiful as Edwin Reardon in Gissing’s New Grub Street, longing for just one reader. If you want to make money, and lots of it, then remember that the commercial writer who sells 100,000 copies – a figure that would make a literary author such as myself weep with joy – is counted as a failure. On the other hand, the literary writer who isn’t reviewed by newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sunday Times, or who hasn’t been short-listed for a prize is also counted as a failure. Plainly, these criteria are idiotic. All the same, the author who fails to ask themselves whether they should keep on keeping on is not going to get better. To believe that a bit of talent – enough for a good style, for instance, or sharp observations, or even a shapely plot – is sufficient to justify the affectations of genius is very, very foolish. Generally, the more conceited an author, is the worse their work. If they’ve sold well before, then their public may keep faith with them for a couple of books; but then it all withers away.
All that matters to a real writer is the thing itself. Either a book is worth writing, or it is not. Every single book ever written is the product of a tremendous convulsion of will. Writing a good one is that to the power of a hundred. Of course it isn’t just about will, or talent, or inspiration, as aspiring writers know. It’s about keeping this mixture of total conviction and total humility in sufficient balance for writing to be possible. We have to continue facing almost certain failure, each time, and to become better despite that. We have to continue in the full and certain knowledge that as we age we are less marketable despite our increased wisdom, experience and craft. We have to keep on keeping on. If you are not prepared to do this, then the choice is simple. Put down your pen or your lap-top, and stop. Be a sane and happy civilian; be a reader who has learnt to read better and more creatively as a result of trying to work on the other side. Publishing, agenting, directing and journalism are professions full of people who have made this choice, and are the better for it. Even critics have been known to improve.
Writing isn’t meant to be easy. It’s a life-long apprenticeship. But if you are someone who has kept on keeping on then you know that already.