Terence Blacker



Are you really, truly an author? Try this little test

My latest Endpaper column for The Author magazine poses the big question. Inner authorliness: have you got it?


In the manner of the 1950s Persil ads which asked “What is a mum?”, the poet Robert Hull raised an important issue in these pages last year. What, he asked, is an author?

It is a hauntingly tricky question to answer at this particular moment, because everything is changing. Once authors who paid to publish their own books could be assumed to be vain or deluded; now they are probably canny operators. Once having one’s work in print with a publisher was the accepted criterion of authorliness; today, print is an outmoded concept and even publishers are not quite sure what they should be doing. As Mr Hull wrote, a touch plaintively, “there seems to be a good deal of existential uncertainty about.”

Clearly, the official, book trade designation, “author”, has become meaningless. Only in a weird parallel universe  – or in a publishing house  -   can the term be used for someone who has not actually written the book which appears under his or her name. On the other hand, there are many people, cast into the outer darkness by the books industry, who are undeniably authors..

It is an inner state, authorliness. If you have it, you will probably know  but, to reduce any lingering existential uncertainty, here are a few basic indicators:

-  When you began writing in your adult life, it felt like coming home. Back then, it was less like work than happiness, a return to the sunlit playground. That innocent pleasure has faded with the need to earn a living but even now, on a good day, there is nothing quite like it.

-  You are alone. When you started out, you might have gone on a creative writing course which peddled the myth of teamwork, consultation and “feedback”. You have discovered, as you grow as a writer, what nonsense that is. Yours is a private project. If anything, sailing your rackety little boat as part of a flotilla actually increases the chance of it sinking.

-  You are unreliable, a spy in the house of those you love. You may believe that you do not use the real world, sometimes with unattractive ruthlessness, but you do. Sooner or later, the stuff that really matters to you will appear in some form in your writing.

-  You have an interest in stationery that borders on the obsessive. You may have developed a similar fascination with the new technology, but you would probably be wise to guard against that.

-  You write a book, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It turned out not to be the perfect work you once envisaged but, for better or worse, it has reached its destination. If you are lucky enough to be asked to talk about it months later when it is published, you will see it from the outside, almost as if it has been written by a stranger. Your mind is on what you are writing now.

-  You know that your best work is in front of you.

- You wake up one day and discover that the excitements and disappointments involved in being published have become little more than a sideshow which, if taken seriously, will drive you round the bend. Success and failure very often involve things over which you have no control: luck, fashion, timing, being published by a marketing genius (or moron).

-  You find yourself, rather shamingly being rather sparing when you write letters. You are not being paid. It is not part of your work. Words are your capital.

-  You may not be terribly good socially. Because much of your most intense experience takes place in your writing, you can have a semi-absent air about you which others may, with some justification, find irritating or rude. This personal dysfunction can mess up your marriage, your family, your life. Sometimes you worry that one day you will be alone with only your words for company.

-  You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it..

-  Your agent becomes dangerously important to you. She is the bridge between you, alone at your desk, and the sharp, perilous world of money and deals. It feels, probably wrongly, as if she controls your future. Publishers may come and go; it is the relationship with your agent which matters.

-  You feel guilty when you are not working. Even on Christmas Day, there is a niggling sense within you that you have something more important to do than drink, laugh and have fun.

-  You long to be part of what is described as “the literary establishment”, but you never will be. Other authors, swanning about smugly at a festival or a Royal Society of Literature reading, may cause a knot of rage and jealousy to form in your stomach, but they are worrying about being outside the establishment, too.

-  You have developed, rather to your surprise, a thick skin. The regular hurts and humiliations of the writing life, too many and too obvious to list, affect you less than they once did. Now and then, you can actually laugh at the mad vagaries of your chosen profession.

-  You are aware that bitterness is the professional and personal enemy of every long-term writer. You have seen it erode the lives of fellow-authors, who brood over past slights and setbacks, and rage at the success of their contemporaries. You have made a mental note not to fall into the same trap.

- You are lucky. You are doing something which, for all its agonies and uncertainties, allows you to lead a fuller life than you would otherwise have had.

An archive of my other Endpaper columns for  The Author, the trade magazine for the Society of Authors, can be found in my Writer’s Shed.

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Article Comments

  1. Lee Edward McIlmoyle

    Thank you.

  2. Walt White

    Are you really, truly an author? Can you format a chunk of text with proper paragraphs and line breaks to make it pleasing to read on a computer screen?

  3. Terence Blacker

    Not good at that. I was hoping it was words that were pleasing to read.

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  5. Amy Lane

    In a way, this made me sort of sad… I thought a lot of this was something I’d outgrow. Apparently, I really am an author.

  6. Terence Blacker

    Thanks for your thanks.

  7. Liz Wilihde

    OK, I think I qualify. But I’m working on the thick skin courtesy of Amazon Vine reviewers who think my novel a) hasn’t got enough about interiors in it and b) think it has got too much. Ashenden is published tomorrow. It’s my first novel. It’s about a house.

  8. Liz Wilihde

    PS Try unjustified. Easier to read.

  9. Stephi

    Most of this sounds like me, but I need to work on not talking about my stories. The thing is, though, when I do talk about my stories, I usually uncover new ideas to write about, but that could just be me. I do get writer’s block a LOT, so maybe it is something I should stifle. Great article. I really enjoyed it.

  10. Sandra Davies

    Half a dozen ticks at least, so yes. And thank you.
    And I agree about the non-justification, but the words was what was most important

  11. Judi Sutherland

    Just found your blog. It does seem that publishers are having an existential crisis. Now that anyone can produce a printed volume themselves, what do publishers DO? I suppose it ought to be editing and marketing, but, at least in the poetry world, there seems to be so little marketing going on.

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  13. Katie Ward

    Hello Terence, Thank you so much for posting this. Here is my response http://www.katieward.co.uk/?p=955 Best wishes, K x

  14. White Wolffie

    Yay. Even though I haven’t written any books for several years now, I’m still an author. X)

  15. William Saunders

    Not bitter, and don’t have an agent. I hope there’s no connection between these two discrepancies.

  16. Terence Blacker

    I’m sure there’s no connection. The wrong agent can add to your troubles, of course…

  17. Terence Blacker

    Quite right, too. You got the gist of my piece!

  18. Terence Blacker

    Hi Katie, That’s a brilliant blog, taking my piece a little bit further down the line by dividing us into author and writer (as if life wasn’t complicated enough). I like your phrase ‘authorliness is a kind of real world asceticism’ and, of course, the hash-tag. Thanks to both of you, particularly the writer. x

  19. Terence Blacker

    I think you’d better ask a publisher that. I couldn’t possibly comment…

  20. Terence Blacker

    Thank you, too. And good luck with those words!

  21. PJ

    I shudder whenever I hear the word ‘teamwork’. Writing is not teamwork, cannot be, never will be – it’s a solitary, private act. Always. Needless to say, Creative Writing Courses are not ‘writing’ – they are NLE’s (nice little earners) for universities and writers alike. They are perhaps even anti-writing, as they iron out all tyro authors’ individuality and force them to conform to present fashions through, ‘teamwork’, ‘workshops’ and other circles of hell.

  22. Terence Blacker

    I agree with a lot of that, although I suppose these courses allow professional writers (and others) to keep body and soul together.

  23. Terence Blacker

    Thanks for the very perceptive blog. Hope you got my reply. x

  24. Cole Davis

    Yes, I guess I’m an author. I have contracts with two publishers, but no agent. I don’t know: is the agent dependency thing a good thing?

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  26. Ben Kane

    An excellent, and funny, article, which I read in The Author. I came to your site, hoping to find mention of it, and lo, here it is. So I can tweet about it!
    Many thanks.
    Ben Kane.

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  28. Terence Blacker

    Thanks, Ben – and also thanks for the Twitter action.

  29. m

    Ha, great article. That fits me so well, I should write a book to celebrate my budding authorliness. Oh, apart from the establishment; that might upset my inner troglodyte. Maybe I’ll leave it to you guys, I’ll sit and watch from my cave…

  30. Terence Blacker

    No, please don’t watch from your cave. Come out and anejoy the fun. You know you want to. Thanks for your kind comments. I look forward to reading reviews of your first book.

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  32. Jonathan Sewell poetry

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  34. PJ

    Are you poor?
    Do you spend countless hours in a darkened room tip-tap-tapping away on a keyboard, for days/weeks/months/years on end, in order to create a big pile of paper?
    Do you then send that big pile of paper to people (agents, publishers or the BBC) and collect the rejection letters you receive like arrows yanked from your back, all whilst seeing novels way inferior to yours being published and hyped, and mediocre-to-dreadful TV-radio scripts being commissioned and produced because of their politically correct box-ticking moral goodness – or because of the usual nepotism and croneyism?
    Do you get more frustated than you thought it possible to be at your age?
    Do you have a bad back and regular headaches.
    Then you, my child, are an author – even if most people don’t know it yet…