On discovering whether you are really, truly an author

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.