Zomercolumn – Roger Ellory … A WRITER’S LIFE
A writer’s life is often considered to be a life of ease. Apparently there was a survey last year of the British public, and following on from ‘professional footballer’ as the most favoured profession, writer came second. I think somewhere there must be a viewpoint that a writer rises late (he would have to following the quantity of alcohol consumed at last night’s lavish launch party, surrounded by adoring fellow celebrities, the red carpet rolled out, assistants and attendants on hand to cater to every whim), and while fielding telephone calls from Hollywood producers vying for movie rights, both Alan Yentob and Melvyn Bragg offering ever-increasing quantities of money to feature in a prime-time documentary, our writer would breakfast on scallops and quails’ eggs, smoke a packet of Lucky Strikes, down three cups of Blue Mountain hand-ground coffee, and then type a handful of words on his battered Underwood or Remington before retiring to the club for an afternoon of witty repartee and fine cigars with the likes of Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan.
Sorry to have to let you down, but a writer’s life is not quite this way. I think it was Gideon Flowers who said that ‘Writing is easy…all you have to do is stare at a blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead.’ Leo Rosten said that ‘The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can’t help it.’
As Bennett Cerf so astutely observed: ‘Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire, and then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer–and if so, why?’ Of course, once you attain that lofty position of having been published at all, it then becomes a full-time job to stay there. Writing is a competitive business, to say the least. Apparently only two percent of books published are bestsellers. Over eighty percent of books published in the UK sell less than five hundred copies. The average working writer in the UK draws a salary from his writing of less than seven thousand pounds. This, my friends, is not the level of independent income that will provide scallops and quails’ eggs for breakfast. So why do people do it?
Russell Baker said ‘The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.’ A nice idea, but – frankly – utterly untrue. Writing is a job of work, and for those few that generate enough income from their writing that they can survive without extra-curricular activity (like a full-time job), then the discipline necessary to get out of bed and write three thousand words a day can test even the hardiest literary animals. Terry Pratchett said that ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ So no excuses there, I’m afraid.
Hemingway added ‘It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way,’ which implies that continuing to write requires a degree of study, continual self-education, the willingness to listen to editors and critics and see where your own work could be improved. Which, as a necessary aside, brings us neatly to critics… You’ve worked like a dog for a year. You’ve sweated blood through your fingertips onto the keys of the typewriter. You’ve written and re-written, self-edited, edited once more, and then with a huge rush of accomplishment and self-satisfaction you release your child of a book into the world…and you are met by the critics. “I picked up this book and from front cover to back cover I couldn’t stop laughing. One day I might even read it.” (That was from Groucho Marx, but you get the point, right?)
C.N. Bovee commented that ‘There is probably no hell for authors in the next world — they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this’, while Christopher Hampton was astute enough to observe that ‘Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.’
Though I am nowhere near as vehement or vitriolic in my dislike of critics (and I have found, routinely, that they have actually been extraordinarily kind), it does nevertheless raise a question about criticism. I think it is safe to say that there is criticism and there is review, and they are entirely different subjects.
Somerset Maugham was quick to point out that ‘There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are’, which explains why one book is loved, and another hated. Criticism, even review, is utterly subjective. By its nature, by its perspective, it can never be anything other. In an attempt to edify a potential reader regarding the ‘likes’ of a book, a fair reviewer or critic is bound by the nature of the task to illuminate also the ‘dislikes’. Sometimes a critic might be an unpublished author. Here we sometimes encounter an attitude influenced by sour grapes. An author – dented and disillusioned by critical slant – might be well served to appreciate Sibelius’ comment when he said ‘Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been erected to a critic.’ Also Jean Kerr who advised that when confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write “I had a fun time”? Was he ever arrested for burglary?
It is true that writing is one of the only professions where no-one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. But that does not mean it is an ignoble or ill-advised profession. A philosopher once said that a culture was only as great as its dreams, and its dreams were dreamed by artists. Telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important. Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience. Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.
I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to be a working writer. I consider it a privilege to be able to spend my time in the business of writing, and now I have accomplished at least some small degree of success I believe it is my duty to work as hard as possible to maintain the relationship I have established with my readers. I believe that a reader and writer have a contract. It is very simple. A reader is asked for a small financial contribution, and then a larger contribution of time to read the book he or she has bought. The writer’s clause dictates that he provide entertainment, perhaps education, some degree of enlightenment, but most of all that he convey the reader to some world, some universe, some reality that the reader would otherwise never experience. If the writer fails to do this then he is in violation of the terms of his unspoken contract. Readers are forgiving, but only for so long. Violate that contract two times, perhaps three, and your reader will find another writer who works harder to maintain his end of the bargain.
So, aside from the work itself, aside from the reviews, the criticisms, the spats that one has with one’s editor when he smiles, nods resignedly, and says ‘Perhaps it needs a little more work, eh?’…aside from all the extraneous additions to this trade, there is only one important factor to be taken into consideration: the reader.
We write for ourselves yes, but really we write for our readers. We write because we don’t have the nerve to rob banks, of course, but truthfully we write for our readers. So buy books – buy as many as you can – and then read them. Not only will it entertain you, enlighten you, enchant and edify you, it will also keep writers off the streets.