The unspeakable horror of the literary life, and other slight exaggerations

In Books
March 16, 2006

I have a favourite book about writing. It is not helpful on the process of getting yourself writing (for that read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), nor is it instructive on the writing “magic”, where to find that spark of inspiration (for that, go to the sublime Becoming a writer by Dorothea Brande). No, this is simply a book which tells the truth about what it’s like to be a writer. No one in the UK has heard of it, which has made it a wonderful gift for writers, my editor and my agent. But I’m going to let the cat out of the bag now. Go and read Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel and understand what it is to be a writer.

It’s only a little book, each page illustrated. I have so many favourite moments, it’s hard to pick one. For a long time, I consoled myself by staring at the page where Mr Earbrass rashly skims his early chapters and “now sees The Unstrung Harp for what it is. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why did n’t he become a spy? How does one become one?” Having spent several years of my life in that state, (so far) this page has been a wonderful comfort.

But, now I’m published, I’m moving a little through the book. In fact, I’ve just been at a literary festival in the Lake District talking, with two other first novelists about what it’s like to be one.


(for reference,a picture of a bit of Keswick, which was cold and beautiful)

So, I thought this event, highlights of which included having my hand kissed by Denis Healey, having breakfast with Penelope Lively and sharing a cab with Barbara Ehrenreich (who, even though it was early in the morning, responded calmly to my rather over-energetic declarations about how wonderful her books are) might mean that I’d moved on to the “literary dinner” portion of The Unstrung Harp. At this literary dinner, Gorey tells us, “The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.”

Conversation at our dinner table mostly didn’t deal with these topics, I’m sad to say. No literary feuds to report, no bitching about publishers. But over the course of the event, there was a little talk about reviews. We discussed, in particular, how a single bad line in an otherwise wonderful review resonates a hundred times louder than any line of praise – which I’ve certainly found myself. I wonder if this is because writers are more insecure than other people? Or would anyone feel this, if their performance reviews from their jobs were published in the press? It does have a positive effect, though, at least for me. Once I’ve got over the initial shock of someone producing any criticism of my book, I’ve found it’s made me work harder and to greater effect. There’s something freeing about criticism – it allows you to try new things instead of sticking to the same old ones in search of the same dog-bone of praise. So, while the horror might be unspeakable, I haven’t found it utterly pointless.

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