Lionel Shriver pines for the days when she was read less and wrote more

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The New Repub­lic

PAR­ENTS whose off­spring as­pire to artis­tic ca­reers find them­selves in the in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion of ei­ther try­ing to crush their chil­dren’s hopes or en­cour­ag­ing a pur­suit that will prob­a­bly pay beans. Had I a sev­enyear-old who de­clared that she wanted to be a writer, as I did at that age, I worry that I might spon­ta­neously ex­claim, ‘‘ Are you crazy?’’

Make no mis­take, I’ve led a great life — yet one that, fis­cally any­way, may be de­creas­ingly on of­fer for young writ­ers. Ad­vances are down. Typ­i­cally for fic­tion th­ese days, my lat­est novel has sold roughly two (for the au­thor, less lu­cra­tive) e-books for ev­ery hard­back.

Pub­lish­ers are more im­pa­tient than ever — and they were never pa­tient — with a first novel that doesn’t make a splash.

Be­sides, your tal­ents are equally en­dan­gered when a book does make a splash. If you re­ally want to write, the last thing you want to be is a suc­cess. Now that ev­ery vil­lage in Bri­tain has its own literary fes­ti­val, I could spend my en­tire year, ev­ery year, flit­ting from Swin­don to Peter­bor­ough to Aberdeen, jaw­ing in­ter­minably about what I’ve al­ready writ­ten — at the mod­est price of scald­ing self-dis­gust.

For nov­el­ists, ac­cep­tance of an un­cer­tain in­come has al­ways been part of the pack­age. While I was plough­ing through my first sev­eral manuscripts, the need to gen­er­ate at least sur­vival in­come was a mild mo­ti­va­tion, al­though what­ever avarice drove me was purely a greed for fi­nanc­ing yet more books. Af­ter all, if what you re­ally want is to get rich, in­stead of writ­ing fic­tion you’re bet­ter off hit­ting the newsagent for lot­tery tick­ets.

I’ve now tasted both ex­tremes of the literary life­style: scrimp­ing ob­scu­rity and your ba­sic day in the sun. I’ve had nov­els sink like stones; I’ve had best­sellers. Yet with the ex­cep­tion of a few lu­mi­nar­ies whose rep­u­ta­tions are as­sured, you’re only as good as your last book. My liveli­hood started out shaky; it is still shaky.

Or it feels that way, which is the only ex­pla­na­tion for the oth­er­wise baf­fling trans­for­ma­tion of my work life ever since my sev­enth novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, hit a so­cial nerve and was de­vel­oped into a fea­ture film.

True, pub­lish­ers rou­tinely sup­ple­ment their mea­gre pub­lic­ity bud­gets with free au­tho­rial self-pro­mo­tion. But the whole­sale coloni­sa­tion of my di­ary by aux­il­iary ac­tiv­i­ties that haven’t a whit to do with the con­tem­pla­tive, her­met­i­cal job of a nov­el­ist can­not be laid at the feet of HarperCollins. A fren­zied cal­en­dar is my fault. It is the nat­u­ral con­se­quence of a pro­found in­se­cu­rity that, dur­ing a dozen long years when I lived a hair’s breadth from hav­ing no publisher at all, worked its way into my bones.

That in­se­cu­rity, some of which is eco­nomic, seems to have in­duced a ter­ror of turn­ing any­thing down — any­thing that will sup­port book sales. And spare me. I don’t need to be told this pushover avail­abil­ity is pa­thetic.

Thus, at a time I des­per­ately need to get my next first draft off the ground, check out my com­mit­ments for the next cou­ple of months or so: mul­ti­ple-hour in­ter­views with Dutch and Bel­gian pe­ri­od­i­cals, along with the dreaded photo shoots. Literary fes­ti­val ap­pear­ances in Lon­don’s Soho, Charleston, Birm­ing­ham, Chel­tenham, New­cas­tle, Folke­stone, Cam­bridge, Wap­ping, and Bali (yeah, yeah, tell us another sob story — but South­east Asia in­volves a 17-hour plane trip and a dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing seven-hour time dif­fer­ence).

A read­ing of one of my short sto­ries at the Arts Club in Lon­don. Din­ners with my publisher and ed­i­tor to dis­cuss a new im­print. Ra­dio in­ter­views. A cer­e­mony for the Na­tional Short Story Award, for which I’m short­listed — and prizes are a de­struc­tive time and emo­tion suck, since in most cases you don’t win. The de­liv­ery of a ‘‘ ser­mon’’ in Manch­ester, which for an athe­ist will be a big ask. A lec­ture in Am­s­ter­dam, re­plete with mini au­thor’s tour for the Dutch trans­la­tion of my last novel. A panel on sto­ry­telling for Mum­snet. A pre­sen­ta­tion to prospec­tive sup­port­ers of Stand­point mag­a­zine, for which I write a monthly col­umn. An ‘‘ in-con­ver­sa­tion’’ for a med­i­cal con­fer­ence.

What al­ready awaits in 2014? A read­ing at the Royal Academy, a two-week promotional tour of Aus­tralia, a six-week teach­ing res­i­dency in Fal­mouth, events in Mun­cie, Indiana, and Bath, and in­vi­ta­tions, as yet mer­ci­fully un­ac­cepted, to fes­ti­vals in Al­berta, Van­cou­ver, Es­to­nia and Sin­ga­pore.

I’m con­cerned my de­liv­ery of this cas­cade of beaver­ish­ness may come across as boast­ing. On the con­trary, it serves as both lament and con­fes­sion. My scrib­bled di­ary is a disgrace. My up­com­ing sched­ule does not re­motely rep­re­sent the life I signed up for at seven years old.

Th­ese ad­mit­tedly elec­tive di­ver­sions are on top of a host of on­go­ing both­er­a­tions bound to con­front any fic­tion writer fool­ish enough to have poked a head above the pub­lic para­pet: be­seech­ings to blurb other writ­ers’ books (there­fore read them). Re­quests to re­view other writ­ers’ books (there­fore read them — and be­cause re­view­ers are paid only for their own wordage, th­ese as­sign­ments pay about 25c an hour; for your trou­ble, the au­thor will prob­a­bly hate you). Es­says like this one. So­lic­i­ta­tions of quotes (free quotes) to fill out other jour­nal­ists’ ar­ti­cles. Book launch in­vites. Char­ity ap­peals for signed, an­no­tated first edi­tions to be auc­tioned at te­dious galas at which your at­ten­dance is ex­pected and for which you have noth­ing to wear.

In­ter­view re­quests from for­eign news­pa­pers, ask­ing you to dis­course at length about a novel of which you are not only tired but, said book be­ing two or three pub­li­ca­tions back and only now com­ing out in Greek, you don’t even re­mem­ber. Web­site and book sup­ple­ment de­mands for ‘‘ your favourite book’’, ‘‘ your five favourite books’’, ‘‘ your 10 favourite books’’, ‘‘ the book that changed your life’’, "your book rec­om­men­da­tions for Christ­mas’’, and ‘‘ your favourite sum­mer beach reads’’.

Im­por­tun­ings to judge literary prizes, which means you can’t even win them. I may boy­cott so­cial net­work­ing, but email is bad enough, and for many of my col­leagues, Face­book and Twit­ter must eas­ily leech, as Kazuo Ishig­uro would say, the re­mains of the day.

Mean­while, any au­thor is now ex­pected to pull out all stops for a book re­lease. The more pub­lish­ing in ag­gre­gate gets hys­ter­i­cal about the end of lit­er­a­ture as we once knew it — I am not the only agent of in­se­cu­rity here — the more their pub­li­cists are fran­tic for writ­ers to ac­cept any op­por­tu­nity to at­tract at­ten­tion.

This means set­ting weeks aside, or — in the case of writ­ers who pub­lish si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the English-speak­ing ter­ri­to­ries of Canada, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, the US and Bri­tain, as I do — up to four months aside for email, ra­dio, and TV in­ter­views; un­re­lent­ing photo shoots when you have al­ready used up your small, tawdry wardrobe on the last book re­lease; yet more fes­ti­val and book­store ap­pear­ances; and scads of jour­nal­is­tic as­sign­ments: fea­tures and com­ment pieces riff­ing on the non­fic­tion sub­jects nom­i­nally re­lated to your novel, or lazy, per­sonal bare-alls to make your­self seem in­ter­est­ing. But con­sid­er­ing how you spend most of your time — re­peat­ing your­self ad nau­seam — you are not in­ter­est­ing.

So, when does a nov­el­ist write nov­els? Writ­ing the books gets fit­ted in here and there, like mak­ing time for tak­ing out the rub­bish be­fore bed. I have grown per­versely nos­tal­gic for my pre­vi­ous com­mer­cial fail­ure — when my fo­cus was pure, and the books were still fun to write, even if no­body read them.

I’ve never un­der­stood why so many peo­ple seem fas­ci­nated by the ‘‘ writ­ing life’’, and if this run­down of to­day’s real ‘‘ writ­ing life’’ seems dis­ap­point­ing, it’s meant to be. Sure, there’s no pre­cise re­quire­ment that au­thors put them­selves in the way of all that froufrou. But this is a high-anx­i­ety oc­cu­pa­tion. With pub­lish­ers’ hanky-twist­ing over whether there will even be a pub­lish­ing in­dus­try in 10 years, that anx­i­ety has gone into over­drive. Could we au­thors learn to ‘‘ just say no’’? Per­haps. Still, how many names that the pub­lic has learned to recog­nise will it soon for­get? More than by am­bi­tion, ‘‘ just say yes’’ is pow­ered by fear.

That is a fear now hor­ri­bly fa­mil­iar to many Amer­i­cans in other fields. In the post-2008 eco­nomic cli­mate, few em­ploy­ees feel safe. A friend in fi­nance is only cer­tain of keep­ing his job un­til Christ­mas. Af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing a new two-book con­tract, I am iron­i­cally more locked in pro­fes­sion­ally than my com­pa­tri­ots with jobs not for­merly re­garded as risky bets.

Granted, I still have to write the books and HarperCollins needn’t ac­cept what I sub­mit.

Nev­er­the­less, for the next few years, I will not be fired. Es­pe­cially now I’ve reached the deadly age of 56, that makes me lucky. Still able to make a liv­ing through main­stream pub­lish­ing, my gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers has been lucky. If some­times stress­ful or dis­tract­ing, even sub­sidiary com­mit­ments are also op­por­tu­ni­ties: to con­nect with flesh-and-blood read­er­ships, to air views and griev­ances, to ex­ploit a more the­atri­cal side of one’s char­ac­ter (I’m a ham) and, for pity’s sake, to get out of the house.

Many as­pi­rant writ­ers may wish bit­terly that they had an in­vi­ta­tion to Bali to com­plain about. Yet that bit­ter­ness would be mis­placed. The at­trac­tion of this oc­cu­pa­tion should not be its an­cil­lary perks. Hence I not only worry about pub­lish­ing’s eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture im­plod­ing, as sin­gle ta­lented voices are drowned by a clam­our of am­a­teurs ea­ger to be read on the in­ter­net for the price of a dou­bleclick. I also worry about writ­ers of the near fu­ture who make it — only to blog, tweet, email, text and Face­book their pre­cious time away; only to be swept up in ap­pear­ances, celebrity pro­files, web­site ques­tion­naires and photo spreads built atop the frag­ile foun­da­tion of a lone imag­i­na­tion at a desk.

For scrawls in an au­thor’s di­ary read­ily be­come ei­ther ex­cuses to pro­cras­ti­nate or ob­jects of jus­ti­fi­able re­sent­ment as com­pe­ti­tion for the soli­tary, re­flec­tive life that rightly con­sti­tutes the real thing.

Lionel Shriver

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