I don’t know of many writers who admit to being happy. The good ones are deeply critical of their own material; Alan Bennett seems perpetually amazed that anyone would want to read him, and many writers I know are looking to the next work to properly correct the mistakes they see in their last one.
Not that we get to hang out much; it’s not a club (although perhaps it should be). Our paths cross at literary festivals but we don’t talk as seriously we should about the art itself and what we hope to achieve – and heaven forbid we should ever collaborate, even though I’d jump at the chance. But there’s one topic that is in the back of many writers’ minds; when – and how – will they write The Big One?
Not many of us set out to write one book that will be more successful than the others; it’s largely out of our hands, catching the tone, timing the delivery, hitting the exact mood of the public. You can’t back-time a hit, and you have to build two years into the publication date (a year from delivery to hardback, another year to paperback).
Plus, the nature of the business is changing; it has become just a business. It’s often pointed out that the purpose of publishing is to sell books, not to be the arbiters of taste. So who makes sure that good writers reach public attention?
We look to the agents, who can build a career on a single discovery. New York’s Kirby McCauley rose to fame representing Stephen King but also had George RR Martin, who attracted critical attention long before he started the ‘Ice and Fire’ book cycle that became the world-beating ‘A Game of Thrones’. Deborah Rogers, who I think represented Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, also worked for the thrill of discovering a new manuscript, placing excellence and innovation above market economics. The theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay became almost as famous as those she represented. Her biography proved popular and she was played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film version of Joe Orton’s life, ‘Prick Up Your Ears’.
So, the agents wrestle the art into shape and the publishers find commercial places for the art, but who knows if the next book is going to be the perfect balance of art and commerce? And this leads to another problem; how far should you lean toward public taste and away from your own (because rarely do the two coincide)?
Here’s an interesting point that may help to settle the argument. Nicholas Hytner, the former director of the National Theatre, suggests that writers’ work ages and eventually becomes meaningless. He says that when he was a child you could still perform Ben Jonson’s plays, but that now you’d have to translate them because the language has altered so dramatically, and that eventually we’ll have go do the same to Shakespeare’s texts.
The same goes for restoration comedies, once massively popular, now utterly mysterious. I once took a lady from Los Angeles to see what I regard to be a very accessible play, Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer’. At the intermission she turned to me and said, ‘I can’t understand a f*cking word, but I love it.’
I’m drawn to the abstruse, and am tempted to write dialogue that’s highly ornate and non-naturalistic. But if I do that too much, you’ll eventually find yourself stumbling through my prose and hating it. Hytner argues it’s what keeps Oscar Wilde fresh; it’s all about the abstraction of the lines. There’s no sense of realism or topicality.
So which do you choose, pleasing yourself or pleasing your readers? I would argue that sticking to your guns and writing something demanding – impossible even – can land you a place in the temple of posterity. Writing for your readership and ensuring it’s all accessible may make you more popular, but it will never be The Big One. Ronald Firbank wrote in such an extraordinary way – akin to being an abstract artist in a time of pre-Raphaelites – that he had to pay for all of his books to be published, and they all failed. Now he is revered as an iconoclast.
But who now will settle for fame after death?
How you go about writing your magnum opus is a question that cannot be settled. It’s best just to do what you most love, and do it best.