Having had a book published (Prosperity Drive)in the last couple of months I’m at the end of a writing cycle – the come-down, the post-partum anti-climax, the post-post production; call it what you will. You spend several years writing the damn thing, followed by a short burst of attention when the book is reviewed, and then. . .? As Peggy Lee sang – is that all there is?
Not that I’m complaining. No siree!
I’ve been through two publishing droughts in my writing career (though I don’t like to use that word because I don’t consider writing as a “career”. Banking is a career); one at the beginning when I was trying to get into print, and another, after three books, when I found myself once again in the publishing wilderness.
I was reminded of that time (and, of course, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again) at an event, The Lightening Bug, in Cork last Sunday, when someone asked a question about the effects of rejection.
For a period of 13 years (2000 – 2013), I didn’t have a book published. I found myself shut out, first from the publishing world, when my editor rejected not just the next novel I produced, but the next one after that. Then there was a parting of the ways with my agent of 15 years. Suddenly, I found myself right back at the beginning again.
And it’s worse second time around. Because at the beginning you have hope; you have the dream of being published to sustain you. You haven’t “come out” as a writer. When you have been through the grinder once, your hope is not as robust. Also there’s a kind of suspicion of the writer who’s been published and then dumped – are they damaged goods? Not up to it, in some way.
It wasn’t that in this 13 years I wasn’t writing; no, I just wasn’t published, though these days there often isn’t a distinction made between the two. In that period I wrote two novels and a collection of short stories. But if your work can’t be seen, it equates to not existing. And if you’re a writer, it calls into question your existence. Are you a writer if you’re not published?
Now that’s a question everyone asks before they’re published. But it wasn’t a question I expected to be asking, having already published three books. I had made the mistake of believing that once you broke through the publishing barrier that you were set, if not for sudden overnight success then, at least, for a steady arc of progress. I thought I would write and I would be paid a a little bit more for each successive novel, maybe win some big prize as the icing on the cake. I wasn’t asking for much.
(As it is, the financial rewards for writers who do get published, have been seriously diminished. The advance for my current book of short stories is a third of what I was paid for my second novel in 1999.)
I don’t mean for this to turn into a self-pity fest. This has happened to lots of writers – good writers. Mike McCormack whose most recent novel, Solar Bones, is – deservedly – getting rave reviews at the moment, described a similar publishing hiatus and its effects on morale.
“I nearly went fucking crazy. . , ” he told The Irish Times, “for those five years I couldn’t give my work away. It was tough on me and for people around me. But as my wife, Maeve, said to me, it isn’t my job to get published. . . it’s my job to write.”
In the decline of mainstream publishing, this sort of thing is happening to many mid-list authors, whose work is being judged solely on commercial terms. But when you’re going through the experience, it feels like it’s just you.
All sorts of questions run through your head. Was it something you did? Were you ungenerous in your success? Did you deserve the success in the first place? Did you not appreciate the success enough? Did you take it for granted? Has your work suddenly become terrible? Have you lost the capacity to judge your own work? Is there anybody interested in your kind of writing anymore? Is your writing relevant? Is it worth continuing? What good is a writer without readers?
You are taunted by the manifest success of your peers at every hand’s turn. I think it was Gore Vidal who said whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. I found myself secretly identifying with those words.
There is not much positive to say about this experience except this: – when you write and you don’t get published, it absolutely clarifies the reasons why you’re writing. Thirteen years without a book on the shelves returned me to a purer relationship with the work than I’d ever had. First time round there was all that striving to make it, to get published; now it was writing for the sake of it.
During this period when people asked what I was doing (a loaded question – what they really meant was why haven’t we seen a book of yours out?) I would say I’m writing for my posthumous reputation and that was true. I had given up on the prospect of being published. This was not easy to do; it was a stage I reached after a lot of striving and self-laceration. I considered trying to write a pot-boiler, to tailor my writing to what the market would find acceptable but I didn’t have the heart for it. I went through despair – which, for me, consisted of considering giving up writing altogether. But I’m too old to do anything else.
But I did consider declaring I had stopped writing if only to be shut of those persistent questions. In fact, I think I couldn’t give up writing – it’s the way I negotiate with the world. The world doesn’t make sense to me until I’ve written it down. (Also, I’ve a terrible memory so if I don’t write down experiences, it’s as if they never happened.)
But dealing with not being published meant going back to first principles. I wrote for its own sake, to do it, to have a body of work even if no one wanted to read it. You could say I was writing for myself. It didn’t make going to those literary functions where you met more successful peers any easier; it didn’t make answering those questions about what you were working on or when was your next book due any less painful, but it made it possible for me to go on, to justify to myself the worth of what I was doing.
I changed my attitude to publication in those years, looking on it as a by-product of writing, not the be all and end all. Because once you believe that, you’re at the mercy of all the whims that govern the publishing world – the rule of the men in suits, the insatiable appetite for celebrity publishing, the commercial bottom line.
Here’s what I learned. (Because, of course, you have to learn something from it!) All you can do is your own work, in your own time. If you don’t believe in it, how can you expect anyone else to? This is the hardest thing to hold onto in the face of rejection. And I’ve come to realise that publication doesn’t mean anything but itself. Publication is not transformative. My life is not going to change because of it. What it means is that someone else has seen the value in the work, that it has struck a chord with its first readers and that my voice is being heard again.