I think all writers are afflicted by a sense of being under-noticed. I am one. I have friends who are writers and over the years as a journalist I have interviewed many others, from the emergent with a first book to some of the most famous in the world.
Anthony Burgess had that problem. I interviewed him at his home in Monte Carlo around his 70th birthday. By then he had published dozens of works, novels, plays, even librettos but he spent much of his time with me smirking about what a bright boy he was and scowling at those who had put him down.
He said he was being dismissed as a workaholic because he wrote so much. He couldn’t simply be content that he was one of the great English novelists and critics of the 20th century. How could TS Eliot be regarded as a major writer, he said, when he only had two books?
There never does seem to be a point in a writer’s life at which one can comfortably enjoy having arrived and not be looking around to compare one’s own fortunes with those of others.
I suppose that the energy that drives ambition and creativity also feeds a sense that a writer has much further to go to be successful. And that sense of unfulfilled potential becomes frustration and envy.
In fact, some writers seem virtually addicted to the work and to the attention.
And the world does not play fair with writers or indeed with anyone.
Getting published is difficult.
You start off with ideas and proposals and manuscripts you have spent years over and you try to present yourself to publishers and agents and you find that they already have their own ideas of what they want.
You are either lucky enough to be a good fit, or you adapt yourself to what they want, or you labour in vain, if getting published is your goal.
Even getting published, once it happens, may not be such a big deal.
The high point always seems to be getting your hands on the first copies. Then you can smell them, feel the weight of them, sign them for your close friends. You are a writer. So why do you still not feel like one?
My first book came from a publisher’s approach. I had sent out manuscripts that had gone nowhere but my journalism attracted a publisher who suggested a book and offered a small advance.
I had visions of my book being on bookshop shelves for years, me being interviewed by Mark Lawson on late-night television, the Orwell Prize perhaps. I got a lot of good reviews but the book sold about 3,000 copies and then fell off the edge of the world.
Publishing a book, I realised, is a bit like publishing a magazine. It has a slightly longer shelf life, but after three months or so the marketing energies of your publisher are focussed elsewhere.
I also realised that more people were reading the reviews than the book.
One appearance on RTÉ or Newstalk to discuss it was reaching about 30 times more people than were buying it.
Any discussions about it that I imagined taking place in the pubs or coffee shops were going to be based more on those reviews and interviews than on the book itself.
And if the review was behind a paywall the social media critics might only have read a headline and a paragraph yet feel entitled to evaluate a year’s work.
And reviewers sometimes don’t even bother to read the book. Certainly most broadcast journalists interviewing you about a book will not have read it. They will be frank about that.
I have had reviews in some of the top literary magazines in London which did not say anything about the book at all but simply used the fact of its publication as a springboard for a writer’s own reflections on the same subject.
What reviewers perhaps don’t grasp is that the writer of a book will always know the book better than they do. I can read a review and tell that the reviewer has based the whole piece on one chapter.
What reviewers perhaps don’t grasp is that the writer of a book will always know the book better than they do. I can see how a reviewer has taken my attempt at a witty aside and treated it as if it was the whole foundation of an argument then used my own humour to make me look ridiculous.
I can read a review and tell that the reviewer has based the whole piece on one chapter.
Even a sympathetic review may be a bad review, that is, a weak appraisal of the book by someone who otherwise wants to approve what you’ve done.
And the nasty reviewer who does a scathing review may impress readers of the paper or magazine but be wholly transparent to the one person he or she is most committed to offending. But there is a rule, unwritten, that we don’t respond, not even to correct an obvious misreading. We would seem self important.
And I wonder if reviews help anyway. My novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, was described by both the Irish Times and the Sunday Times as ‘a superb thriller’ and yet bombed.
I have 12 books through seven publishers.
I have not found that cosy relationship with one publisher who will take everything I write and I have not won any big prizes yet. I did get an Arts Council Major Artist Award.
I am not rich or translated and I do frankly envy those who are but there is no objective judgment available to me of my work or anyone else’s.
I am like most published writers, somewhere in the middle of the pack. The big break is always just someone’s marketing plan. Better just to get on with the next book than worry about it.