Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Once Again on Writing

Yes. I am about to bore you again.


Once upon a time, back when I was in school, I read an essay in English Literature class. I don’t recall much about it – there were one hell of a lot of essays we’d had to read, some of which were utterly awful, and most of which I was more than glad to forget, but I remember that this one was about writing. And the one sentence I recall most clearly is this:

“Some books are unjustly forgotten; none are unjustly remembered.”

This was, you can safely assume, written in the era before marketing campaigns, social media promotion, and the kind of publishing industry which makes its money out of authors and not the books they sell. It was written in the era before content went to hell and packaging was all that mattered.

I know exactly what I am talking about.

Now, it may sound like boasting, but is the exact and literal truth: I am a pretty good writer. There are plenty of things I can’t do – so many that I have even written an article about some of them – but I can write. And those of you who have been reading me for a while have been kind enough to say so, on more than one occasion.

So, I should be a well known and successful writer, shouldn’t I? You’d guess so, right?

Guess again.

Let me say it once and for all: good writing is not easy. The writer has to come up with plots that are at least relatively original, with characters who are, in the context of the tale, believable, and writing that can’t either be bland or descend into the morass of purple prose. And all this has to be done in a terse enough format to keep reader attention, which is all too prone to wandering off towards a TV show or Fakebook. And then it requires revision and editing to iron out plot holes and streamline the story, which takes even more effort.

In other words, writing is a bloody hard job. It isn’t an enlarged version of What I Did On My Vacation that one wrote in school to satisfy the teacher.

And it’s not just this, either. Writing, actually, takes time. It takes one hell of a lot of time, much greater than it takes to read. And where does this time come from? Unless he or she belongs to one of the vanishing breed of full-time authors, the author steals this time from himself or herself – the time he or she would normally spend in such normal activities as going out with friends, reading, resting, or sleeping (or sleeping with someone, come to that). A dedicated writer is someone with no social life, no spare time, no close friends – unless he or she is extremely lucky, and they are very supportive – and a dedication to the writing that has long passed the stage of being healthy and descended into a cross between an obsession and an addiction. You write not because you want to, but because unless you write, you can't breathe or eat or sleep without being wracked by the guilt of not writing.

Again, I know whereof I speak.

So, after all this, when one manages to turn out something which – by any standards one applies – ought to count as good, solid work, even if not genius-level, one ought to be able to sell it, right? Publishers ought to compete with each other for it, and make enough of a name for the author that he could think of chucking the day job he despises and take to writing full time? Right?

You know the answer.

All right, I’ll admit, I’m embittered and disillusioned. It took time for me to acknowledge, even to myself, that I would never become famous. It took time to realise that I could write well, even excellently, but I would always belong to that category of authors who remain “unjustly forgotten”.

But I am human, and I can’t suppress my anger when I see – as I’ve been seeing since I first began trying to get published, some eleven years ago – the kind of utter, undiluted, pure and concentrated bilge that is put out on the market by allegedly “mainstream” publishing houses. I have seen books put out by publishers who informed me that their fiction quota for the year was over – books so trite that not only could I have written them with my eyes closed, I would never have written them anyway because I would have been ashamed. I have seen formulaic, stale, rehashed tripe get famous because the author was “marketable” – had a pretty face and a good body, maybe, or was already well known as an ad man or a minor celebrity. I have seen all that, and I have been angered and disheartened.

The culmination came a few weeks ago, when my novel on jihad terrorism in Kashmir, Fidayeen, which I’ve been trying to get published since 2009, was rejected once again. Apparently, it’s not “marketable”. Well, if being “marketable” consists of writing Bollywood-style action-movie trash with jingoistic plotlines and cardboard heroes, then I agree it’s not “marketable”. But I couldn’t live with myself if I wrote to fit the tastes of the “market”. I’m a writer, not a whore.

I wonder if Hemingway, for example, would have found a publisher today. Or Mark Twain. I don’t see anyone daring to touch Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, with its scathing anti-militarism, or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, come to that. But they’re perfectly happy to publish zombie trash or teenage vampire romances.

More and more often these days, I find myself wishing I could give up writing permanently. I’ve tried; more than once I’ve tried. Once I even managed a month or six weeks without writing a word. But as I said, it’s a cross between an addiction and an obsession; in the end I came crawling back to the keyboard again.

Ultimately, writers are not normal human beings.

At least not if you consider “normal” to include people like that woman who wrote, if you can call it writing, Fifty Shades Of Grey.    


*This is the thousandth article to be posted on this blog. I would like to thank all the people who read what I have to say, even though, I’m sure, I end up rubbing you wrong sooner or later, in some way or other. Perhaps I kill off a character you liked a lot, or maybe I tell you that your favourite politician is a blood-soaked mass-murdering child-killer. But you keep on reading me.

Thank you, all.


  1. Well done on reaching 1,000 articles. That is a legacy to be proud of.

    BTW you forgot to mention the mass of celebrity autobiographies that are not actually autobiographies but books "ghost written" by somebody who probably had the same dreams as you (or even me) at one time but gave them up to become an anonymous hack.

  2. One thousand! I believe I have about 1/5 of that. If I put all my posts from my prior blog (where I posted under a different name), that number would double.

    I can understand what you're saying here. I don't write nearly as much as you post here, and it already consumes a good deal of my free time. I spend endless hours daydreaming about things to write.

    My problem is balancing plot and presentation. In other words, not just what I write, but how I write it. One without the other is always going to be disappointing.

    When I think of your writing, I think of the piece about the mushrooms that put people into a daze so they can consume the people as food. I don't know why that one sticks out.

  3. It's a pity they decided not to publish Fidayeen. I don't read fiction anymore except yours.

  4. Bill,
    First off, congratulations on 1,000 posts.
    I trust you'd count me among those who are wondering why your stories don't get published. I repeat myself as I have before, more than once, you are a master story teller. I do put you along side Joseph Conrad. He was another great story teller whose books I am fortunate enough to own a few of. Like you, English was not his native language either.
    Yes, today Hemingway, Twain, Heller, and many other writers who wrote what we call classics today would be damn fortunate to get published.
    In the US where I still live, it seems that the majority no longer read books. Dad always had books in the home he made for us. I remember we even had an encyclopedia. I am certain it was bought on a time deal. If memory serves me, we'd get a new volume every month or every other month. We even got a "Year in Review" for many years. Yes, we did have the full set and I have no idea what happened to the books after he died.
    So many, in this country in my opinion, have become illiterate, at least functionally so. As a country, we no longer read except for Farcebook, Twitter, or some short attention span crap. We are much the worse off for this.
    I'll keep reading your work as long as I breathe. Many, many thanks for all your efforts.


Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.