On the illnesses of authors
Authors in America are facing a new problem. Those who are considering earning their living by trying a different genre – an established thriller writer with an idea for a children’s book, for example – runs the risk of suffering from what publishers now describe as “brand disintegration”. The brand that is their work and image will be eroded and destroyed by any hint of versatility.
For a few authors, particularly those whose brand disintegrated years ago, this news is hardly a surprise. The act of writing for publication lays one open to many such everyday occupational diseases. As a medical service to members, a new Endpaper consumer guide covers, in simple layman’s terms, the more common authorial illnesses and complaints.
Repetitive Book Syndrome
At the opposite end of the diagnostic scale to Brand Disintegration, RBS leads to a compulsion to write virtually the same book year after year. Fortunately for sufferers, many publishers are suffering from a variant of the same disease and positively welcome authors who can deliver more or less an identical book time after time.
The writer Bruce Chatwin claimed that he could only write in a particular kind of notebook bound in lambskin and sold by a small shop in Paris. This approach to writing, in which the particulars (desk, pen, paper, coffee etc) acquire an exaggerated importance in relation to the actual work, can be very infectious among authors prone to self-importance. If uncured, Chatwiniacs usually end up by being unable to write at all because they are unable to find precisely the right kind of paper.
A very common, minor complaint, Dorianism affects middle-aged and older writers who become profoundly confused about their age. An early symptom is the persistent use of author photographs that are at least two decades out of date.
Professional authors who plan to stay sane and solvent will always look forwards rather than backwards. Those who succumb to Nostalgic Constipation break this important rule, finding themselves unable to break from their last work and dwelling obsessively on its sales (lack of), reviews (profoundly ignorant) and publishing history (scandalously inept). The accumulation of this waste matter from the past causes a blockage which prevents any new work form emerging – not a great tragedy for the culture at large, but sometimes uncomfortable for the sufferer.
A complaint that almost exclusively afflicts ambitious male writers in their late twenties and early thirties, Critical Satyriasis reveals itself in showy displays of pointless aggression towards other authors, usually in reviews or feature articles. Essentially an act of male sexual preening, similar to the showy self-abuse of adolescent Bonobo chimpanzees, this syndrome usually self-corrects after the sufferer has tried – and often failed – to write a novel himself.
Sometimes even successful, distinguished writers grow tired and the solitary grind of writing begins to get them down. At these moments, they are vulnerable to the need to sit around tables and talk about literacy, government arts policy, the problem of international copyright, the future of the book – almost anything, in fact, that will keep them away from their desks. Generally harmless, Committee Addiction is often a side-effect of Talent Decay.
When Martin Amis confessed that he was physically unable to open a brown envelope and would have to hand it queasily to his wife to deal with, specialists in author dysfunction identified a new syndrome. Some writers actually lose the capacity for dealing with the outside physical world, seeing reality as somehow less important, and perhaps even less real, than the written word. Brownenveloposis usually afflicts men and the presence of a long-suffering wife can sometimes keep it in remission.
Those who have contracted this complaint can be recognised by their repetition of certain mythic tales from publishing history: Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal was rejected by 25 publishers, The Lord of the Flies was discovered in Faber’s lush-pile, and so on. The psychological problem here is not so much that the sufferers are unable to accept rejection but that they see it is as virtual acceptance – the most casual adjective of praise obliterates any surrounding criticism. They convince themselves that the editor loves the work but belongs to a heartless corporation, or the book is ahead of its time, or simply that everyone except themselves is compromised, corrupt or lacking any kind of taste.
Many authors one wake up to an uncomfortable fact. Talking about writing, they discover, is quite a lot easier than actually doing it. Soon they can become hooked on punditry, avoiding written work by teaching and talking about characterisation, intertextuality, interiority and unreliable narration to anyone who will listen. Although many of them do sterling work at the sharp end of the burgeoning Creative Writing industry, some Talk Dependents discover that the more they theorise, the less they write.
This degenerative illness is terminal but mercifully tends not to be recognised by the sufferer.