Writing to . . . write?
Tim Parks has made me think, with his article ‘Writing to Win’ in the New York Review of Books. The gist of the article (though you should read it for its insight) is that the withering impatience we have for unpublished writers transforms into unconditional high regard once those same people are published. ‘All at once,’ he says, ‘you’re being listened to with attention, you’re on stage at literary festivals, you’re under the spotlight at evening readings, being invited to be wise and solemn, to condemn this and applaud that, to speak of your next novel as a project of considerable significance, or indeed to pontificate on the future of the novel in general, or the future of civilization.’
This isn’t the case for all published writers, but he’s absolutely right that it’s the case for some. It’s a surreal transformation, from the inward and inconsequential process of writing a novel in total obscurity, to the gregarious, weighty business of speaking about what is now your work of art, your comment on existence. One moment you are as dismissible as a feather, the next you have gravitas; the broadsheets want to know what you are thinking. Your thoughts used to be a congested, erratic, self-referencing mash of half-baked opinion, now they apparently matter, and you, yourself, seem to matter too. The Guardian asks you to say what you think about the state of dementia care today. Radio 4 wants your comment on the world this week, a stranger at a book talk is interested in what drives you as a human being, and by some miracle you acquire credibility, not just as a writer but as a person. ‘Neophytes are rarely unhappy with this,’ Parks says, and it’s true. (Though there’s always the slicing worry: when will they notice? When will they notice that I’m actually just me?)
But I’m interested in what Parks says about this culture of winning, where being published is, to the unpublished writer, the ultimate prize. I think that’s because we perceive, writers and public alike, that there is a club to which writers must belong, the feted published club, and there is a key to it. Once over the threshold we are in and we are kingly, credible and sanctioned. With impunity we can put ‘Author’ on any form that asks for our job title and it’s done, a relief: the line is crossed.
I felt like that when I first heard I was going to be published – downright relieved. Thank God, I’ve crossed the line. But what happens once in? I remember talking to a fellow author a couple of years ago, on a train back from a literature festival – he said he often felt his job was akin to that of a racehorse, that he needed to become a championship writer, and if he didn’t he would have in some sense failed. I have felt this too – it’s not enough to be a good writer, even a great writer, I must be a prize writer. When Parks asks: ‘Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer?’ I would say that, from within the club, there is anything but uncritical reverence. It’s a hard, scathingly critical world of hierarchies, random fortune, popularity contests, and all-round vulnerability, which is – Parks is right – about winning, or nearly-winning, and more often losing, or losing out. Though of course we’re not really allowed to disclose our preoccupation with winning, but instead to celebrate our place in a collective success story and to stand with brotherly big-heartedness amongst other writers.
A lot of that fraternity is genuine too, and I have met some of the most brilliant people in writing circles. I also meet equally brilliant people among my students, and it never escapes my attention that the people I teach this year might be ahead of me on a shortlist next year. Nor would I prefer to be unpublished, obviously; I’ve come to rely on that sanction to a degree. It remains a persistent question for me, though, about how to maintain my own sense of professional worth. So much of what is written and said about books and writers (and, actually, everything) is hot air, and so many judgements of worth are arbitrary to the point of being meaningless. I hasten to add that I have never felt that hot air and arbitrariness more than when I was in the spotlight and on prize shortlists myself. If we are not winning, what are we? And if we are winning, what are we?
I am beginning tentative research for a new novel at the moment and I find myself putting down ideas, and then instantly hearing a chorus of naysayers on Saturday Review. Harvey fails to convince us of this world. Harvey’s premise is contrived, her characterisation is puppetry, her mind inadequate, her being fraudulent. I take up my pen again (it had fallen from my hand in dismay) and think: Regardless, I’ll carry on. There has to be a reason for it all beyond validation and winning, at least for those like me who lack the killer instinct, and that reason has to be a kind of love for the process. It has to flourish in a crack between doubt and arrogance. In my experience there is as much art and craft in learning how to write expansively from this small space as there is art and craft to writing itself. Winning is the bit that is not in your hands, and you can’t be concerned with it. It will happen, or it won’t – that’s all. It’s an obvious truth, I know, but we must write to write, not write to win, be we published or not.