Approximately one decade ago, I thrust thoughts of Blackrock–style pack rape from my mind and spent a couple of days as a spectator at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle. I had an excellent time on both occasions and, while unquestionably the most memorable thing for me was seeing Helen Demidenko in the flesh (although she was calling herself Helen Darville by that time and was a brunette, so no longer had a striking physical resemblance to Martin Bryant), a close second in memorableness was hearing a successful novelist, as part of a panel that was, no doubt, discussing either how to get published or crazy new things to do in ‘multimedia’, declare that if you’re a writer who, rather than living by your pen, works as a waiter, ‘You’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.’ This assertion, as part of his firm advice that writers should, if at all possible, get rid of the old day job, is one to which I’ve given a great deal of thought over the years, and I disagree with it violently, at least as far as successful novelists are concerned.
By and large, being a published novelist is at the glamour end of the writing pool. I appreciate that novelists who don’t make much money from their books (that is, most of them) will regard that statement as the raving of the nuttiest of nuts, and it goes without saying that writing a publishable novel is very hard work, and something that most people can’t do, even though virtually everyone seems confident that they can. However, just contrast being a published novelist with other types of writerly existences. If you’re a journalist, you must meet deadlines that are short and rigidly imposed, plus potentially having your article spiked or ferociously subedited. If you’re a scriptwriter, there is the chance you will have your work treated as merely a blueprint, not to mention receiving blunt estimations of its quality. If you write, say, fat biographies, not only is there exactly no chance, unless you’re Andrew Morton, that you will become a household name, you will have to do much tedious research and make sure you actually get your facts right, as no poetic licence will be granted, meaning that this is the type of writing that is, perhaps, the most like doing massive amounts of homework. If you’re a full-time published novelist, however, you will be achieving at least a measure of fame and admiration while, with the possible exception of reviews, virtually never having the living shite bagged out of you. Even editorial comment on manuscripts is usually expressed as tactfully as possible, with the phrase ‘Of course, this is only a suggestion!’ being employed more widely than Dave Hughes.
And this is exactly why I very much doubt that novelists being able to devote themselves fulltime to their work is good either for their immortal souls or for the people around them. It is my scientific conclusion, drawn from the gathering of intelligence from those who work in book publishing, that the authors who are the best to deal with are usually those who are forced to cope with the outside world occasionally, whether through holding another job as well as writing books, or through having to, in the case of the women, look after children and generally deal with domestic matters (I specify women here simply because I don’t know of any male authors in this situation, which isn’t to say, of course, that there aren’t any). The sad fact is that the ones who are able to devote themselves entirely to thinking about their writings and themselves, and wrestling with, say, the question of exactly which parts of which reviews praising their genius should be used on new editions of their works, are far more likely to be monsters of ego, simply because they have come to know of almost no reality that isn’t composed of people sucking up to them.
The claim that these folk are perfectionists is often the excuse given when they throw eighteen kinds of mental if their tiniest whim isn’t carried out to their exact specifications. And, instead of the government taking away their right to suffrage, it is not unusual for publishers to pacify them with such presents as big freaking bottles of expensive champagne. Now, aside from anything, the term ‘perfectionist’ really gets thrown around these days. I’ve seen all manner of human either having the term applied to them or applying it to themselves: one example of this is the day I opened the newspaper to see the word used to describe Jackie O. It is always immensely irritating to hear someone speak in a self-satisfied way about how they loathe seeing mistakes appear in their work. In terms of obviousness, it’s the equivalent of saying how much you would hate to see your cat getting run over and then have to scrape him or her off the road. And there have certainly been many instances since the world began turning when it would have behoved a given writer to focus less on apportioning blame for the appearance in the final product of a solitary error and more on writing a work that wasn’t a tossed salad of balls. And such tyrants are even worse when they have the kind of wife who has decided that it’s a grand idea to subsume her existence to Monsieur de Novelist’s, ensuring that he doesn’t have to bother his head with practical matters and that nothing in general disturbs his fragile equanimity. I have never understood why it is thought to be constructive that such an individual be treated like a combination of a special-needs child and a lunatic.
Too, with the news that seven women are on the longlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, let us stop for a moment and consider whether literary prizes in general, whether awarded to man, woman or beast, are invariably of wide benefit. When it comes to the Franklin, the award has obvious worth if it brings notice to, and increases sales for, a hitherto under-appreciated book, but that is not actually its purpose, so if and when it happens, this is only ever a happy accident. The reality is that Peter Carey, Tim Winton or Richard Flanagan could publish the Kylie Mole diary in a matte cover with a classy picture of a fish on it, and they’d at least make the longlist, and most likely the shortlist, and, let’s face it, most likely merely win it outright. I mean, how much more recognition do we think such individuals need?
And then there are literary grants, which are, I would contend, also not always helpful, either for novelists or for society at large. I am all in favour of government assistance for, say, making films or television programs, which are expensive and logistically complicated exercises involving a lot of people. Writing a novel, on the other hand, is none of these things. Too, if a person needs to be given money so that they can live overseas for a while in order for them to be stimulated mentally, there is an argument to be made that they lack the imagination that is surely a precondition for the job. And then there’s the question of whether, to put it baldly, grants are necessarily giving value for money. I know of an author who was the recipient of at least one literary grant and appeared to write approximately a word a day. When, after several years, she finally delivered this taxpayer-coined work, it was slightly longer than a Pussyfoot discography.
Of course, if someone is in the fortunate position that they make enough money from penning novels not to need to do anything else, it’s understandable that they probably won’t do anything else, but this doesn’t mean they should be encouraged to live like this. Even setting to one side the argument that it’s generally injurious for people to be put in a position where they start to, as is said of babies, not realise that anyone else exists, it’s my belief that if you’re made to interact with a broad range of people on a regular basis and do something other than sit alone writing novels while people tell you how great you are, you simply have a lot more to write about. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a writer who works as a waiter, you’re a waiter and a writer.
This piece appeared, in a rather different form, on The Scrivener’s Fancy. I was keen to exhume it and give it something of a makeover.