Saturday, 12 October 2013

Author or narcissist

Have you been into a bookshop lately? Or more likely, have you browsed through an online booksite like Amazon? What is the first impression that you get?

I know what I think. Lots of books.

It always gets me thinking. Thinking about why there are so many books. Thinking about what would be involved in reading them all. Thinking about the sort of effort that went into writing them all. Just thinking in general that there are so many books around.

With so many books already in print - or online - why do we need to make more? Are there really any new stories we can tell? Are there any more twists we can find to tell the same old story in a different way?

And, of course, I can't help thinking about my own place in this puzzle. As a writer, why do I write? Why do I feel that I need to add to this abundance of books? Do I really have something new to say, on top of what has already been said, often by writers of substantially more talent and with deeper insight into the human condition than myself? Am I adding something significant to humanity's body of work, or am I just adding to the confusion.

Sometimes I wonder whether we writers are just supreme narcissists. That we're somehow imbued with this self-belief that our stories, no matter how tangled and mangled, are intrinsically worth reading. That the words we conjure are somehow deeper and wiser and wittier than those of our competitors.

Of course, I prefer to think that isn't the case. And yet, I'm more than happy to override any self-doubt and push my work out regardless. I suppose I just can't help it. In my mind, I'm not sure if I'm a narcissist or not, but I do know for sure that I am a writer. And that's good enough for me. 


  1. "Saying that we have enough artists is like saying we have enough scientists, we have enough designers, we have enough politicians — we have enough politicians — but, you know, nobody gets to be you except you. Nobody has your point of view except you. Nobody gets to bring to the world the things that you get to bring to the world — uniquely get to bring to the world — except you. So, saying that there are enough writers out there, enough directors out there, enough people with points of view. Well yeah, there are, but none of them are you. And none of those people is going to make the art that you are going to make. None of them is going to change people and change the world in the way that you could change it. So if you believe somebody that says, "no, no, we’ve got enough of those," then all it means is that you are giving up your chance to change the world in the way that only you can change it." ~Neil Gaiman, "Advice to Aspiring Artists".

    The point is that, yeah, there's a ton of books out there. An absolute ton. But -- just like those who have come before us -- we have an equal right as they had to make our voice known.

    Is it about competition? Not really. Or, at least, not for me. People have compared me to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams all the time. Does that mean that I should strive to keep writing until Discworld and Hitchhiker's Guide are mere memories? Not really. Because I will never, ever write a novel like Pratchett can. At the same time, however, he will never write a novel like myself.

    I feel the answer to 'what's the point of writing if so many other people have written' is the same as 'what's the point of living when there are so many lives already'. The answer to which is that, well, it's a bloody riot. It's fun. It's something people enjoy doing. Yes, there are people out there that write a book because they think they are superior to others. Just the same with artists who paint to show off their skill, or musicians who make songs because they think all other genres are scum. But there are people out there who write, paint, and make music, because it makes them happy, and it makes the people around them happy. For such a motive to exist in a world where we're being convinced from all sides never to be happy, to always sacrifice yourself in order to become *even happier* -- isn't that worth it, really?

    Anyway. Your books are well-received, so you must be doing *something* right. Even if books are just a mess of people trying to get their voice out, yours managed to break through a vast majority of them, so that must mean something! :)

  2. All the truth any of us will ever need is out there. The problem we all have is connecting with it. My dad shared with me a lot of truths as I grew up. Mostly they were things he’d read or heard. Maybe one of two things were original but the odds are even those things will have been said by someone else and probably better. No one has the time to read everything but if we read enough we’ll touch on everything that’s truly important. Your books deal with moral conundrums and no, you’re saying nothing that’s new, but for someone out there—and it may only be one or two people—your book will be where they learned a specific truth first. Most people don’t read philosophy. They read novels and yet the perverse thing about most novels is that there’s nothing very novel in them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they say something meaningful. There will be people out there whose values are based on the Harry Potter novels. Is that a bad thing? People my age have values based on Star Trek. Truths need to be contemporised. They need to be discovered anew.

    Of course we’re talking here about publishing. People write for all different sorts of reasons. The best of us I’d like to think write for ourselves and publication is an afterthought. I write to discover things for myself, often about myself. I’ve said this before but once I’ve written a poem or a story or even an entire novel I could quite happily chuck it in the bin because it’s done its job for me. If others can get something out of it then that’s a bonus. Whoopee.

    Worth, value, cost, price: think about those concepts for a bit. An economist could give you precise definitions of all of them but we’re not economists and most of the things we value in this life don’t come with price tags. What is your writing worth? What did it cost you—in life experiences—to produce? Is it worth the 99¢ you’re asking for it or is that a poor way to measure the value of something? It’s not all about money. You and I are unlikely to write anything that will change the world. I have written stuff that has changed the perspectives of individuals. I’ve written a poem that made a grown man cry. Mostly we’ll never know the effect our writing’s had. People are very bad a giving feedback even online. “Send your bread out on the water because, in the course of time, you may find it again.” (Eccl 11:1) “What would anyone do with soggy bread?” I hear you ask. That’s not the point. The point is you don’t know and perhaps it’s best we don’t know.