Unsurprisingly, the issues surrounding publishing and our sense of ourselves as writers have provoked the longest discussion of the whole writing course. It seems to me that at no point in the past has publishing ever been such a problem to writers. If you were mad – or educated – enough to want to write, then publication was something that eventually happened down the line. It strikes me (and I may be wrong) that writers were a much more self-selecting band, and publishers were a much more adventurous bunch.
Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out. Rather than simply accept these barriers to self-expression, those Darwinian technology types gave us the digital world. And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?
It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near. You say the ‘P’ word in authorial company and suddenly everyone is rushing to declare their practised speeches, composed during the small hours of the afternoon when writing is hard and recognition distant and somehow morale must be maintained. The other basic problem is that many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomenon – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.
Most of my publishing experience has been academic. I’ve published four books and about 20 articles and chapters, and I did this over the space of about 12 years. Which strikes me as quite a lot in hindsight, throwing my son and chronic fatigue into the mix. I rarely got paid for it (£200 was the only advance I was ever given), and my writings disappeared with the tiniest splash into the great ocean of academic tracts. Academics only read for what they’re researching – you don’t go and read someone’s book about Rabelais just because it’s supposed to be good – which to my mind is why academic writing has become so insular and unattractive to general readers. Everyone writes to be clever. Not everyone writes to be stylish, although the field of academic research even in my small literary corner is vast, and it makes no sense to either celebrate or condemn it. It has been formed by the forces of necessity and good intention.
So why did I take it upon myself to add to the trillions of words? It clearly wasn’t for fame or fortune. I didn’t do it ‘for myself’, whatever that really means. When the boxes of advance copies arrived I felt pleased for about two minutes, and then I found the immediate issues of the day more pressing. No, I did it because it was, for me, the root of my work as a literary critic. Everything grew out of that quiet moment when I thought about a book and shaped those thoughts into words. That was the beating heart of my discipline. How could I teach students about essay writing if I weren’t engaged with that process myself? How could I put good lectures together unless I had thought long and hard about the books I was discussing? I had to write about the book to get to the bottom of my reaction to it. And once I had written down to my satisfaction an interpretation of a book, I wanted to share it with my community, to contribute to the ongoing discussion and because (rightly or wrongly) I felt I had something to say.
It was always important for me to know whom I was writing for, not least because I could then be assured of saying something that might feasibly be useful. Essentially, the reason I write at all is to get my message across. I want to make people think about things they generally try to avoid thinking about. So I have to strategise a lot with regard to the audience if I have any hope of achieving that goal. What I learned pretty fast through teaching (and living) is that human beings make dreadful listeners. On the whole they hear only what they want to hear, or what they are afraid they will hear. It’s always seemed to me the most intriguing challenge to get readers to put their prejudices, their hopes, their anxieties aside and hear instead what I want them to.
So I have never been someone who writes ‘for myself’. I do not want, as one of my classmates brilliantly put it, to be engaged in nothing more than a monologue. I want to be talking to someone and not as a party bore who has importuned them in a corner, but as a voice saying something they might find illuminating to hear. Our course instructor said that he found the whole publishing malarkey much easier when he thought of his writing as a gift that he bestowed regularly on the world, without expectation of reward. This sounds to me like a convenient solution to a knotty problem, and one that makes us all look pretty. It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? This idea of the author writing in an isolated cell, then sending her work out into the world with never a glance to see where it lands, indifferent to its fate. Yeah, well, dream on. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t long for praise and popularity. And I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t hurt by rejection. Writers do what they do because they feel close to the human predicament – we can’t suddenly turn around and become angels or saints. It’s better to face up to the large and ugly emotions that are part of the process.
I think the consolatory fantasy of self-fulfillment has risen in proportion to the difficulties encountered in actually getting published. Because so few of us are ever likely to have the bonus of an audience for our writing, we have to work our way around that emotionally. And whether we publish traditionally or independently, an audience remains the most elusive commodity. As I said, it’s only once you’ve published and realised that it does not suddenly make your work desirable and praiseworthy, that you live in cold, hard clarity. I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this muddle and I’m not sure there are any. I think perhaps writers have to accept they are a kind of modern-day Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock to the top of the mountain and watch it fall back down again, but enraged when it does so and longing every time for that rock finally to stay in place and become a monument to endeavour.