Last week I was lucky enough to go to the Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards. It was a great night, not least because of the thrill of seeing authors up there with celebrities and film-stars. It reminded me that, despite all the woes and worry we’re always hearing about publishing, books and writers are still incredibly important to many people. Even if things aren’t as good as they used to be (but doesn’t the past always seem better?), we’re accorded the enormous privilege of being able to make money by telling stories. And the fact that our society supports a fair few people in this rarefied role shows to me we still honour writers at some basic level.
When I was little I didn’t dream of being on Top of the Pops or getting an Oscar. I dreamt about winning the Booker Prize (I was a strange child). I suspect I’m not the only one. Why did I do that? I suppose I felt that winning an award would show I was valued, that my work meant something to people. However, as I grew up and realised I’d have to do something else in the meantime, or if the writing never happened, my innate social guilt kicked in and I started working in charities.
I did this for six years. It was the same as any other job – meetings, documents, computers – but with the vaguely comforting sense that no matter how frustrating it got, your daily toil was hopefully going towards the greater good. At least, I thought so at the start. As time went on, I started to realise it’s not enough just to have vague good intentions. To make a difference you have to have the resources and the skills to get things done. Compassion can make you clumsy. I was left with the unsettling feeling that I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to, or that I really had the deep passion for the work that was needed. Because really I wanted to do something else – write.
Now I don’t do charity work anymore, and most of my waking moments are taken up with books, writing, and words. This sometimes leaves me with lingering guilt that I should be doing ‘something’ to help the world. But what that is, I have no idea. I do feel working with books is a more benign occupation than, say, organising arms fairs. However, sometimes I question if being a writer, or involved in culture generally, really justifies my sense of ‘not being evil’ (to paraphrase Google).
Is writing in some way a moral act? One thing that’s surprised me, as I’ve entered the world of books, is that many writers aren’t as happy as you might think to have secured the dream of a publishing deal. Once it happens, you don’t spend the rest of your life being stunned with gratitude. Maybe this is inevitable. There’s always new dreams, and there’s always someone doing better. For every super-seller with beach houses in Malibu, there are thousands of writers toiling away, consumed with fear about shrinking advances, the death of the mid-list, and the rise of e-book piracy (among other bogey-men). And when writers fall out, the cat-fights are spectacular. I suppose it’s because writing tends to attract cerebral, introverted people, and the nature of it means sitting alone for hours in a room, with lots of time to brood. And also because they know how to form a well-crafted insult.
So, just the act of putting down words on paper doesn’t make you a good person. And being able to empathise with your characters does not necessarily fill you with a terrible tenderness to the world and all that’s in it. You remember that bit in American Beauty where he says, ‘….And I am filled with gratitude for every single moment of my sad little life. You don’t know what I’m talking about – but don’t worry….you will.’ If you felt like this all the time, it would destroy you. So writers can be just as selfish, cruel, and short-sighted as everyone else –often at the same time as they’re creating works of such empathy, they could make you weep.
If just writing isn’t enough to make up a life well-lived, what else is there? I’ve learned after several frustrating years that it isn’t enough to just want to be good. You can’t fake your passion, and if books are what you truly obsess over, nothing else will ever really do. How do you live a good writing life? Refuse to do bad reviews of your peers, because they’ll be upset? (see this article for more http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/12/writers-review-each-other) Pretend you love every book you read? Encourage and support other writers? Join charities like PEN or Amnesty which protect writers overseas? Give advice to anyone who approaches you for it (until you realise there just isn’t time)? Write books about important issues that may provoke a change in society? Write books that entertain people and make them happy? Answers on a postcard please. I do think it’s a privilege to be able to make a living doing something that (hopefully) gives people pleasure. That’s why we have awards, and accolades, and admiration. I’d love to know what I can do to show I’m grateful for it.