So Robert McCrum is having to have a garrett purpose-built because he can’t afford to rent a separate office any more. Hanif Kureshi, Professor of Creative Writing, has declared creative writing courses to be a waste of time and America’s John Kerry has told Putin that he can’t just march into other countries as though he owned them. And Spring is springing at last, but we’re still sad – it’s just that self-awareness deficit has replaced seasonal affective disorder.
And I’m not immune to it. Everything I do – writing, reading, school runs, children’s homework, cooking, shopping, cleaning, trying to master B flat minor contrary motion on the piano – is done to the beat of the constant pulse of wondering whether The Ship will succeed. Where I once worried over whether I would ever be published, I now find myself worrying about whether I will sell. When people ask how my book is going, I find myself rabbiting on about how it hasn’t sold abroad yet. When will the questioner get to see my book on a Tube poster/magazine page/at a cinema near you? Will I have a launch party? I don’t know. I genuinely have No Idea. When? If? I am, to be honest, a bit of a mess – a mess that’s partly my personality and partly a lack of any real understanding of how this industry works. Once, I’d have asked myself, What would Madonna do? But that was a long time ago, and Like a Virgin just won’t cut it now. Even though it’s an excellent description of my longed-for, feverishly desired relationship with publication.
In 2012, I was working on The Ship, unagented, unpublished, with no guarantee this would ever change, on top of looking after four small children, supporting my mother through a terrible time, and meeting the demands of chronic illness in the house. That year, Will Self was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His wife, Deborah Orr, a journalist I admire hugely, wrote an article for the Guardian on the experience. ‘But when Will has assembled a book in his head,’ she wrote, ‘it’s like a baby assembled in a womb. It has to come out. It’s nature. Nothing can stop it.’ I knew that experience. I was living it – and not for the first time. But when she continued, ‘I don’t think he could cope with having all those stories invading his mind, expressing them in words, then not being able to get them published,’ I paused. I had all these stories invading my mind, I was expressing them in words, and I hadn’t been able to get them published. I couldn’t cope with it either. But that didn’t confer publication upon me. It didn’t make me any more likely to be given a break. You have to cope. You cope, or you stop. And if you stop, you’ll never be published.
When successful writers (or their champions) make statements like this – and you hear them a great deal – they indicate a sense of entitlement. They reinforce the impression of the literary world as a magical closed circle, governed by a mysterious alchemy of talent and mystical anointing. A place where cream rises, where the rules are different, where it’s ok to neglect friends and family or behave in antisocial ways for the sake of your art, where rudeness such as Doris Lessing’s famous, ‘Oh, Christ,’ when she was told she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature, are celebrated. They promote the idea of writers as ‘other,’ and nothing could be less helpful to aspiring authors, or further from the truth.
Writers are not ‘other.’ The majority of writers are workers, maybe parents, certainly grafters and toilers. They’re you. Will Self was unbelievably lucky to have Deborah Orr’s unconditional support; their children are grown up now, too, and I hope and believe that eases the constant negotiations within a marriage. Because the cream doesn’t just rise. It’s helped. It’s supported. It’s drawn up (sometimes, Hanif Kureshi, through writing courses). It’s left alone to settle. It gets to write all day while its wife, suffering from breast cancer and its treatment, lies alone listening to its typewriter. What cream can rise when the milk is constantly shaken up? Getting published is not a passive process, and cream rising is a useful metaphor only for those who are already at the top.
I’m aware of a great many debut novelists at the moment (you know the drill – you’re trying for a baby, suddenly everyone is pregnant) and I think most of us dream of a life in which we are given unconditional time to write. You have to be extremely successful (Robert Crum, take note) to be able to fund that. You have to commit, bloodymindedly, and blunder about with determination and a smile, and even then, even supposing you do get published, the chances are you’ll have to keep working at something else if the bills are to be paid.
I can’t force Hanif Kureshi to acknowledge that the parent of teenagers is rarely the best source of advice on current brands of pushchair, or force Robert McCrum to recognize that most writers are hard-pushed to afford a roof at all, let alone build a writing room in it. But I can remember how it felt not to have a book deal. I can stop insulting other writers with my ungracious fretting and worrying over the fate of my novel. Instead let me say this: aspiring writers, who get up and write anyway, juggling full time work, children, mystified partners – keep going. All you’ll find at the top is another summit, but don’t let that stop you. And published writers – especially the ones at the top – leave the ropes in place. The miracle story is the one of which we dream, but the true hard graft story is the one that inspires, even if telling it requires a self-awareness check.