Why unpublished novelists keep writing: why not? An answer as to why this one does

Alix Christie’s “We Ten Million” asks why unpublished novelists write, the number being an estimate of the number of unpublished novels out there (hat tip Heather Horn). Very few books get published; very few that do get any attention; very few of those even make any money; and delusion is a vital skill for many who continue writing. Rationally, most of these would-be writers would probably be better off if they quit writing and did something more economically and socially more productive with their time, like working for Wal-Mart, digging holes and filing them up, writing blogs about their cats, etc.

According to Horn, possible answers include: the idea of a craft, the importance of literature (even if it’s unread?), the need for story, and art as courage. I’m not sure I buy any of those, or any of Christie’s answers. I think the real reason is simpler: novelists keep writing because they basically like the act of writing novels. Publishing, fame, fortune, and all the rest would be nice, as they certainly would be for this unpublished writer with an inbox full of requests for fulls and partials (industry lingo for “send me the full manuscript” or “send me some chapters”) from agents, but the possibility of future and unlikely accolades don’t fuel the work on a daily basis. Instead, the daily drive to succeed is about the material itself. I’ve mentioned this famous quote before and will do so again: “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ ”

The people writing unpublished novels are presumably doing so in lieu of going mad or dying. They feel they have to or need to write.

In a recent post, I wrote about an exchange with a friend who’s an undergrad:

A lot of my motivation comes from a fantasy of myself-as-_____, where the role that fills the blank tends to change erratically. Past examples include: writer, poet, monk, philosopher, womanizer. How long will the physicist/professor fantasy last? 

I replied:

This is true of a lot of people. One question worth asking: Do you enjoy the day-to-day activities involved with whatever the fantasy is? For me, the “myself-as-novelist” fantasy continues to be closer to fantasy than reality, although “myself-as-writer” is definitely here. But I basically like the work of being a novelist: I like writing, I like inventing stories, I like coming up with characters, plot, etc. Do I like it every single day? No. Are there some days when it’s a chore to drag myself to the keyboard? Absolutely. And I hate query letters, dealing with agents, close calls, etc. But I like most of the stuff and think that’s what you need if you’re going to sustain something over the long term. Most people who are famous or successful for something aren’t good at the something because they want to be famous or successful; they like the something, which eventually leads to fame or success or whatever.

“I basically like the work of being a novelist,” including the writing and so forth. That’s why I keep going. I think anyone who continues for any other reason is probably already mad, to use Davies’ term. Alternately, a lot of the would-be novelists out there are probably writing not because they want to get published, but to work out their inner demons, or signal something, or because they don’t know what else to do with their lives, or because they’re misinformed. They’re doing something other than really trying to write something that someone else might want to read.

I’m reminded of a passage from Norah Vincent’s nonfiction book Self-Made Man, in which she describes dressing like and passing as a man. Vincent, dressed as a man named “Ned,” describes going out with a woman met on an online dating site, who “was either the most conversationally inconsiderate person I’d ever met or the most socially impervious:”

Clearly she wasn’t ready to start dating again. She wasn’t looking for a relationship. She was looking for distraction and an ear to tell her troubles to. She didn’t have enough emotional energy left to get seriously involved with Ned [. . .]

A lot of would-be writers are probably doing much the same. I’d guess that relatively few of those ten million novels are publishable, or that many of the writers of those novels have any clue what something like publishable might mean (I didn’t when I started, which might’ve helped me; more on that below). As Laura Miller says regarding the “slush pile” of unsolicited queries agents and publishers get:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

So you can probably knock off at least 90% of those unpublished novels as not even being serious attempts, where “serious” means “at least thinking about what makes good novels good and bad novels bad.” Of those serious attempts, a lot of them are probably written by people who will one day be good but aren’t yet (Charlie Stross, the SF writer: “[. . .] I was averaging 1-2 novels a year, for very approximate values of “novel”. (They weren’t publishable. I was writing my million words of crap. You don’t want to read them, honest.)”). John Scalzi says something similar: “Writing an entire novel is something most people have to work up to,” and it’s really hard.

I started four novels and wisely abandoned them. I finally wrote two feature-complete novels in the sense that they started and had ends and had middles that led to the ends, kind of, but they were terrible, and I sent them to agents and got deservedly rejected. If you were one of those slush pile readers, I apologize, but those attempts were so far in the past that you’ve probably forgotten them. Then I wrote the last three novels over the last three or so years and started getting those requests for fulls and partials, which was a lot like the typical dating experience in that they ended with variations of “I like you, but not in that way.”

Nonetheless, I would like to think I can stand far enough back from myself to say that, at the very least, they’re publishable, and I think quite fun. Eventually I assume I will write something that gets a literary agent or press to agree with me—or I’ll go mad or die before that die arrives. Between now and the, I keep writing mostly because a) I’m an idiot (this shouldn’t be discounted) and b) I mostly like the work, as I described above. The second might seem a minor variation on what Christie says—”the only reason is my belief that I have got a story that I must tell”—but it’s a sufficiently important one that I’ll forward it here.

The function of stories in society and some of that other stuff is good, but I’m still guessing that my real reason (and, probably, hers) is that I like to write, which is slightly different from having a story to tell. I suspect the same is true of most artists and intellectuals and hackers; even most hacker/programmer types probably like the fact that they can change the world with their code, and so forth, but their big motivation is probably solving problems and writing code. Notice how the verb “writing” takes on a noun—code—that “writing prose” has lost. The word shows the similar impetus underlying both activities.

I’m not a hacker because, although I’ve written a little bit of code, I don’t like doing it all that much. If I did, it would’ve been vastly smarter to pursue that than it is to continue what I’m doing now. At least I’ve done enough to appreciate how hard it is to write code. And those write good code are rewarded for their skill. Good hackers, programmers, or computer scientists (pick your choice, each with its shades of connotation but denoting more or less the same activity) make a lot of money, and the smart ones often have an immediate, tangible effect on the world. This is sometimes but not always true of writers. But when I began writing fiction with some level of seriousness, I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “What is the optimal path?” I had some ideas and began typing. A depressingly large number of years later, I’m still doing the same basic thing in a way that might be detrimental to my own best interests. So why do I keep going? Why am I part of the ten million?

Because I like the work.

4 responses

  1. For me I think it comes down to what I call “addiction to narrative”. I like to go around with a story bubbling in my brain. I think about one chapter at a time and once I’ve thought about it enough, I write it down so I can move along to the next one. Once I’ve finished a story, I soon get to jonesing for another. Eventually I come back around to do more revising and editing – usually when I’m between stories and need something to do. I’m not proud of my addiction, but it does seem somehow necessary to my mental health. I’m happiest when I’ve got a good one going on.


    • WRT addiction to narrative, have you read William Flesch’s Comeuppance? It’s an impressive book that argues our interest in narrative comes from the satisfaction of witnessing altruistic punishment (approximately defined as punishing someone for transgression when the punishment leaves the punisher worse off), even if we aren’t the primary punishers or aren’t immediately involved in the situation.

      Interesting that we might be as “addicted” to writing narrative as we are to reading narrative, given that the former is a lot harder than the latter.


  2. Pingback: Why You’re Unlikely to see “Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical” Anytime Soon

  3. Pingback: Eight years of writing and the first busted Moleskine | The Story's Story

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