Rennie Airth wrote an article for the London II issue of Mystery Readers Journal that appeared in 2011.
A Cautionary Word
‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’
(And no woman either, presumably.)
Dr Johnson’s famous dictum must have occurred to more than one writer as he (or she) toiled to produce yet another tortured paragraph on those black days when the words won’t come. The peculiar punishment we inflict on ourselves ranging from the simple struggle with a recalcitrant sentence to the greatest terror of all, the never-to-be-mentioned curse of the writer’s block, is a form of masochism unique to our calling. No one forces us to write, after all. But daily we confront our computer screens heedless of the dangers we risk to our fragile egos.
Nor are we alone in our misery. What about all those other sufferers, victims of the collateral damage we inflict? What about the wives, husbands, partners; what about the children (God help us)? What about the neglected dogs longing to be taken for a walk? All have to endure this orgy of self-flagellation, forbidden to make a sound or inquire if the writing is going well, left to struggle as best they can with the mundane business of daily life (which in the case of the writer as often as not is exactly what he is trying to describe, however fruitlessly). As he sinks deeper into the fictional world he has created and tries to bring his characters to life, the real people around him, like Tolkien’s ring-wraiths begin to fade and grow insubstantial. It is the figures in his imagination who hold centre stage.
There are writers of course who have solved the problem of inconvenient interruptions. Flaubert had his mother who looked after him in Normandy until he was fifty, feeding him great meals, pampering him as best she could; and turning a blind eye to the periodic trips he made to Paris to satisfy the grosser demands of the flesh. Proust, on the other hand, took refuge in his cork-lined room. Outside it he had his faithful Celeste who kept him fuelled with croissants and café au lait and even took down whole paragraphs of the wonderfully convoluted prose which Marcel dictated to her as his physical powers were failing. We salute them all.
Children, of course, are a separate problem, and one not easily solved. Being as they are, insistent, noisy, and generally unimpressed by the earth-shattering importance of whatever it is that’s going on behind the closed door where their parent closets himself (or herself) day after day, they present difficulties best dealt with by strategies of avoidance. The work must be done in their absence. Here summer camps (and the longer the better) can prove a boon. Few writers, though, have shown the courage and scorn for popular opinion that distinguished Evelyn Waugh’s treatment of his brood. It’s reliably reported they were only permitted to see him once during the day in the late afternoon ‘for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes’. Rough stuff, you might say. But my goodness, he wrote some wonderful books.
So there we have it. The agonies and…I was going to say ecstasies, but alas, we’re seldom that fortunate. Rather, like marathon runners, we finally reach the tape, exhausted; written out. But at least we can say the work is over. The book is done. All that’s needed now is to find some way to sell it. Publishers do what they can, of course, but how often we have wished for a touch of magic; for that unexpected blessing that seems to fall from on high on some books, lifting them from the shelves where they sit side by side with their competitors hoping to catch a buyer’s eye into some other realm where their titles are suddenly on everyone’s lips; where the possibility of sales seems limitless.
Years ago when I was a reporter in Washington I remember an occasion when it became known – by what means I never discovered – that among the books President Kennedy was taking to Hyannis Port on a week-end break from Washington was a recently published book called The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The effect was electric. Almost overnight it was impossible to buy a copy anywhere. Far be it from me to suggest that JFK’s bedside reading was responsible for the success of John Le Carre’s wonderful Cold War thriller. But it certainly didn’t do it any harm.
But even our fondest hopes can be disappointed. More than two hundred years have passed since the great historian Edward Gibbon thought to improve the prospects of his monumental history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by presenting his latest volume to one of Britain’s royal dukes in the hope that his patronage would send sales of the work soaring. Alas again. Although the story is well known – it was included in Boswell’s life of Johnson – it’s perhaps worth repeating here. Presented with the hefty tome by its author, the duke could only groan. ‘Another damned, thick, square book,’ he is reported to have said in dismay. ‘Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?’
President Kennedy was leaving for a week-end.
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