On Writing Books for Nobody
Right now there are people writing books they never intend to publish.
Hardly a shocking thing to say. Just as we can easily imagine someone composing a song they don’t mean to perform for any audience, or a painter who, upon completing her latest and not very impressive still life, promptly sticks the painting in some cupboard and forgets about it, so too can we imagine someone writing a book and then never “doing” anything with it. Maybe it’s their memoir, or a story that their therapist encouraged them to write as a way of exploring their feelings. The point is, we can kind of accept the idea that people would write a book, and never submit it to an agent or a magazine.
But, let’s face it, part of the hidden assumption here is that such a manuscript would probably not be much good. It’s fine, of course, to write a book for one’s own private amusement or healing, but a book like that surely deserves to remain unpublished, precisely because it was not written to be read by other people. No readers, therefore no real need for quality control. No quality control means license to do whatever one pleases, or, worse, permission to delight in being sloppy. Maybe this is just the editor in me talking, but I suspect this is a common prejudice. It’s easy to equate “unpublished” with “unpublishable”, or “unrevised” with “unrevisable.” At any rate, it seems fair to say that to think of a manuscript is, at least implicitly, also to think of its potential readership or lack thereof.
The more we look into the unarticulated assumptions at work when we try to imagine someone writing a book for no readership, the more we have to face our own neediness as writers. The quest for publication, if indeed it is treated as a quest, can so easily be presented as something heroic; how many times have we all heard about the author who persevered in the face of ten thousand rejections, only to find everlasting fame after a lone publisher took a chance on the “unpublishable” manuscript, making everyone rich in the process? Just don’t give up! The market is a hard place, see, but as long as you believe in your book, you have a chance. Be heroic.
To the author who would be a hero, the industry is a battlefield. And there are websites like this one, to help you on your path. There are creative writing courses on college campuses everywhere, and many, many obnoxiously-marketed books about how to be amazing at marketing your own book. If you’re willing to be truly heroic, you can self-publish and do all the grunt work yourself, like a knight who is also his own blacksmith and horse. And if you never manage to sell more than a hundred copies of your book, at least you got that one really good review.
There isn’t really a way to be heroic about pursuing publication and joining the Book Marketplace — and, later, about building a readership — that doesn’t indirectly draw attention to the neediness of the heroic writer. The desire to be known for what a tremendously fine stylist you are, and how utterly masterful your plotting is, and how well you have understood the subtlest aspects of the human mind; these are things that feed, and spring from, a powerful drive, which may be disguised as any number of things. Instead of narcissistically driven, you may present yourself as determined. Rather than trying to create a devoted following, you are making sure your book sells enough copies so you’ll get another contract, or so your publisher can pay his mortgage. Not hungry for attention, but convinced that you have a contribution to make to your favorite genre. However you choose to talk to yourself about it, there is a neediness behind this whole "being an author" business, as there is behind any kind of creative endeavour undertaken in the public eye. We all have this neediness. No need to pretend.
But there are also people who will devote a surprisingly large amount of their time to writing a book that nobody will be invited to read. I know a few of these people, and it seems I have become one of them. I am not talking about those abandoned manuscripts kept on some USB drive that any writer will amass over time, nor about holding some modest attitude like, “My writing is my business and I don’t want to draw attention to it.” I am talking about the strangely private hobby of writing, revising, and putting the finishing touches on an entire manuscript, and then shelving it. It’s done, it can go. The point was never to finish it and then submit it somewhere or ask for someone’s opinion. The only reader was ever going to be the writer, right from the start.
I’ve done this several times over the last few years. How to convey the pleasure of it? I will start typing something, and within a few pages, it’s clear this is one of those projects, something meant only for me. As the writing goes on, over the weeks, I’ll see a book coming to life, and instead of changing my mind — “Oh, actually, this would really be appreciated by other people! I should finish it up and send it off somewhere!” — I’ll develop an ever deeper intimacy with the book, a closeness that refuses the attention of the outside world. Sometimes I can tell that the reason this is a private project is that I’m using it for therapeutic purposes: there is something being worked through, a psychological blockage that needs to be expressed and given linguistic and narrative form before it gets dissolved. Not always, but it happens. But eventually, even that goes away. It’s not just a story that needs to be told; it is a book that needs to be written. It needs to be written all the way through, and then rewritten, polished, made into an object. Completed. Only then, when the book feels like an alien thing external to me, when it’s no longer something that asks for a piece of my soul, only then does it lose its fascination. And so does the idea of letting other people read it.
Again, I know there’s nothing amazing or shocking about any of this. You may say, “Well, that’s just how it is for anyone who’s writing a book, except for some reason you end up not wanting to publish yours.”
But the way things are out there, in any talk about writing with other writers, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of speaking from the perspective of What Readers Expect, or What Gets Published, or, at least, What Will Be Made Of This Book. This can take subtle forms. Any conversation about balancing your desire for creative freedom with the importance of book sales is infected by this. So is any concern over whether your book is sufficiently comparable to any other book, while still unique, for an agent or editor to take notice. In my day job as an editor of other people’s books, I can’t get away with ignoring these things. And I can’t encourage my authors to ignore them either. Sales matter, public opinion matters, critics and reviewers matter. A book is a product, like it or not. A product, however, is not the same as an object, unless you’re really twisted. To wrestle with something on the page, and then, having tamed that shapeless monster, to rearrange things until a publishable, readable book has emerged does not necessarily entail actually letting that book become a product on the market.
When the idea of selling your book goes out of the window, the book itself takes on a rather different set of qualities. And perhaps the most staggering thing of all at first — staggering because it should be so damned obvious — is that writing, stripped of its possible use as a way of garnering social approval or becoming immortal or just telling a good yarn, is all about putting words together to make stuff happen. It’s hard to say, experientially, where that stuff is happening: on the page, in the unconscious, in the writing process itself? Anyway, it’s out of your control. Really. To write a book that absolutely demands to be written, damn the consequences and damn the readers and damn even the author, is a very different experience to writing a book you intend others to read (or to have the decency to misunderstand until the next generation comes along). The book is just… happening. It grips you. The process sets its own rules, which you learn as you go along, and one of them is that you do not interfere. You must let the book reveal itself to you as an aspect of the deeper mind you did not know you had, and you must not get precious about it. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote a novella that went against everything I thought marked me as a writer and as a person: It was lighthearted where I am not; it had characters who talked about things I didn’t realise I cared about. The whole text was, from beginning to end, informed by an enthusiasm for the gentler things in life. When it was finished, I set it aside for a week, then went back to it. It read like someone else’s work. Truly, somebody else had written it. I reworked some sections to make it all less rough, less choppy. I modified a minor plot point after noticing that it didn't make sense. But through these edits, it was as though I needed to learn the private syntax of another person’s mind. Finally, accepting that the text was as good as it was likely to be, I let myself forget about it until recently.
This kind of thing is not just a massive act of dissociation. In fact, it is arguably the opposite — a way of reconnecting with disowned aspects of ourselves, which no amount of driven, approval-seeking writing can help us with. I’ve talked to other people about this, and quite a few seemed to know what this experience is like. It’s just that talking about it in the first place feels wrong somehow, or beside the point. Maybe it’s an aspect of maturing as a writer. Or maybe it’s the mark of the dissolution of one’s very identity as a writer. The last I heard, my friend Caleb Ross, who has published several books, just… stopped writing one day. No regrets. He just stopped needing it. Now that must feel good.
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