I’ve only been thinking about this for two weeks. There was a book event at the Library of Birmingham and I was listening to the speakers, half wondering if I could steal how funny and charming they were, when a guy asks a question.
Actually, no, it was more that he stated a fact but added a question mark. He said to these authors: “But the point, the aim of it all is to write a bestseller, isn’t it?”
There are two answers to this and they are both no.
You can have the very short ‘no’ or you can have the longer, more considered, let’s have some tea, kind of no which you already know is what’s happening here. He stated this fact and every part of me thought no. It was that immediate, that certain, and it has not taken me two weeks to think about it. Because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I’m hoping that talking it over with you will sort out my head.
I think all that I’ve been churning over comes down to a split between people who write and people who don’t. There are two types of people in this world and they both intend to write novels. I suspect that when you don’t write and therefore don’t know what heavy spade work it is, you only ever hear about writers when they are interviewed. Writers are interviewed almost exclusively only at the point when they have a new book out. This would be because perhaps the only thing more boring than watching video of a writer typing is watching a video of the much longer periods where they aren’t.
But still, the result is that we see writers when they have something new out and inescapably, then, it looks pretty easy to have something new out. They were only on the telly the other day with the last thing, weren’t they?
Then because news wants facts and because there isn’t a gigantic amount you can ask a writer about their new work that won’t spoil their new work, we get the topic of money. This is especially true when the writer has earned some amazing amount.
It’s easy and they make a lot of money.
Maybe it’s natural, then, to think that the point of writing is to make money.
Now, certainly, I write for a living and I like to eat occasionally, I prefer sleeping indoors. And actually I have very often been described as a commercial writer because I like thrillers and Doctor Who and magazines. But I used the word ‘like’ there. I could’ve said “because I write thrillers and Doctor Who” but I said ‘like’. I am a commercial writer but it is because that is where my tastes lie, it is not because I have a spreadsheet saying these are more lucrative jobs than publishing five lines of poetry every ten years.
I do make a living and writers can still make a lot of money, even today, but the answer is still no.
If you go into writing to make your fortune, it is conceivable that it will work, but it is bloody unlikely. So unlikely that doing this for that reason is simply stupid.
Plus, it’s a funny thing, writing: your secret intent has a way of becoming very apparent to the audience. If you’re doing it for glory, we can tell. I interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight the other week and he was talking about how he as all these film and TV projects that mean a lot to him but there are also these many others where he’s been the writer for hire. But, he said, whatever it is, you have to do it as if it is the most important thing to you.
That’s not a definable thing. You can’t have a formula that says 10% more effort equals 10 times the success of a piece. Yet hack work stands out very clearly.
So you have to write what matters to you and you have to hope that it works out enough that you can survive.
Maybe the real barrier between writers and non-writers is that the nons can’t comprehend that anyone would be so stupid as to do this. They’re right. There’s no question but that writing is a stupid thing to do.
Yet I’m okay with being stupid. I’m used to it in everything else, I might as well enjoy it here. And it’s not as if I seem to have any choice in the matter, but I am glad that I am over here on this stupid side. Because it pains me, it actually causes me pain, when I hear someone being surprised that, say, JK Rowling has written another book. The genuine incomprehension you hear sometimes, the idea that she’s daft when she’s done all those Harry Potter books and made her fortune.
She is daft. We all are. Of course she keeps writing. How could you not?