On the seven great questions of an author’s life.
When a recent contributor to The Author described himself as ‘something of a writing guru’, I was aware of a lurch of jealousy within me. What a wonderful life it would be to live as a guru for would-be authors, spending one’s days dispensing gnomic thoughts about irony, structure and narrative voice with a serene, goofy smile.
The connection with a spiritual quest is a valid one. Writing, it has been said, is a form of prayer. When adherents gather for enlightenment, they can experience moments of joy, revelation and, if one of the gamier gurus is involved, misbehaviour. On the road to Nirvana – a publishing deal, a single-figure Amazon rating, a critical benediction from Professor John Carey – many are called, but few are chosen.
What, though, are the articles of faith around which a belief system should based? Mine, were I ever to attain guru status, would be single and simple: you should recognize a fork in the road before you reach it rather than many miles later, when it is too late to turn back.
There are, after all, only seven great questions in an author’s professional life. Resolve those, and you will be on your way.
1. Muse or bank manager?
A few authors are saints, many are tarts. Most of us run an unsteady course between virtue and sin. All the same, you should not wait too long before deciding whether your first loyalty as a writer is to posterity or to scratching a living. There is no perfect balance between the two; one has to take precedence over the other. If you decide, bravely, that you want to write something lasting, then you will not waste time, studying bestseller lists or listening to vapid chat about market trends from publishers. If you want to make money, then sweating over work which few will read will seem futile.
Only the very fortunate manage to appease both the muse and bank manager, and that is largely a matter of luck.
2. To lunch or not to lunch?
At the memorial service for a much-loved writer and literary agent, it was said by several speakers that the dead man had been a legendary luncher. The presence of hundreds of people at his last hurrah was testament to the importance, to them at least, of this spirit of congeniality. Was he right, though? Think of the hours of aimless chat, the lost, woozy afternoons.
There is more to lunching than lunch. It is a state of mind, a sure test of whether you see yourself as an insider, popular, part of a book trade-gang, or whether you prefer being on the outside, a solitary presence beyond the restaurant window.
3. Nice or nasty?
Surprisingly to some, this key question of temperament involves choice. At some point in their lives, those who belong to the VS Naipaul school of author relations have decided that smiling away, feigning generosity and generally playing the nice guy is a waste of time.
Quite often, being unpleasant – or at least prickly – is a good career move. It is seen by publishers as a mark of integrity and seriousness. The pleasers, writers who suck up to them at every opportunity, are seen as lightweights. On the other hand, cultivating dislike and reacting to everything with grumpiness can be hard work and exhausting for all concerned.
4. To take arms against a sea of troubles or to swim with the tide?
At some point, the prospect of not winning the Booker Prize will become a real possibility. The dream, it must be admitted, has not come true. On the other hand, your head is still bobbing above the water. You are paid for your words. There appear to be readers out there who quite like what you do.
At this point the muse/bank manager conundrum becomes more nuanced. The market is telling you to follow the same-but-different approach encouraged by most publishers and produce more or less the same book again and again, but in your pure authorly heart you want to try new things, take risks. It may help keep you sane, but it will be the rockier path.
5. To join or not to join?
You are not alone. There are great organizations out there for people in your profession. The Society is at the pinnacle of them, of course, but there is also Pen, the Writers’ Guild, the Royal Society of Literature. There have always been distinguished authors who shun professional institutions and communities. Like the mad general in Dr Strangelove, they fear loss of essence.
Maybe they are right. Perhaps solidarity is not for free spirits, and support for other writers is something which only concerns mediocrities. The choice is yours.
6. Straight or curly?
For most authors, surviving involves some kind of compromise. Only the supremely successful, or those with private incomes or a wealthy spouse, can remain on the straight path without deviations into the world of journey-work.
Every obvious source of income which is not writing but is connected to writing exacts some kind of penalty, the most ruinous being chatting on TV or the radio and teaching creative writing. You may tell yourself, as you grind out another draft of a corporate booklet, that this sort of work is less harmful to your talent than pulling pints or digging graves, but you are not necessarily right.
7. Fade gently or blaze ridiculously?
There is no silver clock to be handed to you by the managing director, no pats on the back, no speeches. There are not even colleagues around to tell you that your time is up. Thousands of authors, all over the world, are working away right now without having noticed that they retired several years ago.
Be ready for this last great decision. It has within it the thin but discernible traces of all your earlier choices. You are back where you started, a writer alone in the world, and that is how it should be.