Jamie O’Connell: why the world needs writers

The books I have read have changed me. I am more tolerant and open to nuance

Each day, I sit at my desk, typing on my laptop, placing one phrase in front of another. I think about the pleasure it gives me. But is that enough?

I write stories that few are going to read and even fewer are going to like. Even the egotistical idea that I am somehow avoiding mortality by putting something of my mind on the page feels ludicrous. As Marcel Proust said, eternal life is no more guaranteed to books than it is to men.

Where is the intrinsic value of what I do? If I compare my work to those who work in hospitals, or help the homeless, or try to protect the environment, or work for organisations that promote peace on our planet, it seems petty. I write simply to please myself.

And yet, the question of why I write stays with me. There are days when rejections arrive, when I doubt my talent, when this compulsion feels more like a curse than a blessing. I wonder if I could be doing more than courting failure. Nowadays, novels have long odds of making any real mark on the world. How many Shakespeares or Austens are there? What does the novel even mean to our contemporary society? What is its influence and impact, compared to Netflix and YouTube and TikTok and Twitter?


In 2009, I enrolled in a masters in creative writing. As part of that course, I completed a fascinating module given by acclaimed poet Harry Clifton. In one of his classes, he spoke about the challenging path writers face and the importance of developing a personal writing ideology. He said that writers need to figure out exactly why it is they write so as to defend themselves against the doubts and failures that this path inevitably brings.

Since then, I have been refining what my own why is. Since the millennium, much has changed in the world. The apparent stability of the late 20th century has given way to a collective loss of confidence. For the first time since the second World War, many in the West don’t have faith that their future will be better than today. Everything we read and watch is full of fear. But in all this, there has been light.

In December 2015, a friend brought me to see Mary Poppins, The Musical when it came to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. It wasn’t a production I would have thought of going to see. However, the trancelike joy I witnessed on people’s faces, from toddlers through to pensioners, was perhaps one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Afterwards, as I reflected on the show, I realised that its creators, from the actors to the set designers (and everyone else involved), traded in the “currency of delight”. What a fantastic line of business! What a gift to the world. How many times in our lives do we experience pure joy? I downloaded the Mary Poppins soundtrack and for many months the delight returned again and again.

Even now, as I write, that happy feeling returns to me. I am a more joyous person for having seen that show. That is a reason to create. It reminds me of the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

Perhaps a bigger foe in our collective psyche is not this crisis of fear but the modern disease of narcissism, toxic “me-ism”, has become more pronounced in the last decade. Reality television shows celebrate unpleasant people being cruel to each other, to the point where lines have become blurred, and people in everyday life think this is an acceptable way to behave.

And yet, the world will not work on “me-ism” anymore. Covid-19 will not be eradicated without community cooperation. Unsurprisingly, societies where individualism trumps all other ideologies have been worst affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, the environmental issues of our time, which could bring about the destruction of our species and our planet, can only be solved if everyone cares about their fellowman. Rampant narcissistic “me-ism” will undermine humanity’s hope of a future. If each country, and every individual in that country, does not make changes, we are in an endgame.

And in all this chaos, I sit at home writing books that few will read. However, in 2013, there was an article in the Guardian, Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds. The feature outlined a study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York, which offered definitive proof that those who read literary fiction have higher levels of emotional intelligence and empathy. Quite literally, literary books were an antidote to narcissism.

This rang true for me. The books I have read since my bullish teenage years have changed me. I am more tolerant than before and open to nuance. I want to know about feelings as well as facts. It is one of the reasons why I write. I want to understand why people behave the way they do. I am not interested in the black and white of a situation but the many shades of grey.

Furthermore, I believe that individual human stories will always have more power than statistics. Who could forget the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler who washed up on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey? It shifted the indifference to refugees’ plight in a way that no statistic ever could.

More recently, I recall watching the RTÉ Investigates: Covid-19 documentary, which looked at the lives of the patients and healthcare workers in Tallaght Hospital. It moved me in a way that the NPHET announcement of Ireland’s daily pandemic figures did not. This was because the Covid-19 numbers were given faces.

It is through these reflections that I have found an answer to what is my writing ideology. Why do I write? Firstly, I am in the business of delighting people. More importantly, I am in the business of empathy. On the days when I despair at my uselessness, asking why I am not doing more to aid the suffering of my fellowman, I remember this fact. My contribution might be small, but I am glad to be on the side of those fighting indifference.

Jamie O'Connell is the bestselling author of Diving for Pearls (Doubleday, June 2021). He runs an online creative writing course through blackwaterwriting.com.