The world is lousy with aspiring novelists who will probably never be published. Alix Christie offers insight into what keeps them working ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Somewhere in the world right now, ten million souls are hunched over their keyboards writing novels. Ten million hopeful scribblers in their holes. Good Lord, I’m one of them.
The figure is an invention, but backed up by rough math. A quarter of a million new novels are published annually across the globe, 100,000 of them in English. This represents, in turn, a quarter, maybe, of the manuscripts that agents try to hawk. Agents, as all writers know, take only a small proportion of the work they’re sent, perhaps a tenth. Ten million scribes in search of a reader may not be so tall a tale.
This is enough to give the struggling writer pause. Meanwhile, the publishing industry itself is undergoing some discouraging changes. New numbers show that even successful authors earn far less money from books than they used to. In an industry driven by hunger for the next blockbuster, the chances of making a living as a writer are slimmer now than ever. My timing has always been off, I told my husband, fellow journalist and leading fan, whose job maintains the roof above our heads. Just as I’d decided to tackle another draft of my new novel—in search of that great, elusive shape that might translate into sales—the market had moved on.
In the face of such odds, merely writing a novel must seem perverse. Self-indulgent, at the very least, if not financial suicide. The question is less whether the novel as a form is dying, or if the internet can offer a lifeline to certain writers. What cries out for explanation is the strange, persistent fact that millions of us spend years attempting something for which we are certain to see little, if any, reward.
I’ll admit it’s not a jolly path. Yet neither are all of us deluded. I always dread the moment at parties when I find myself explaining that I’m working on a novel. (It is a measure of the general incomprehension that the follow-up question is all too often “fiction or non-fiction?”) Inevitably I’m forced to make the cruel confession that I’ve not been published “yet”.
Dark nights of the soul plague all but geniuses or fools—and I’m quite certain I am neither. I have often asked myself why 13 years ago I chose to take this lonely, ill-lit path. I had the glamour and the satisfaction of my byline in the world’s top newspapers and magazines. I loved, and still do love, the work of journalism, of asking questions in the world. But from the start I’d also had another dream. I’d always hoped to write a novel like the ones I spent my childhood devouring whole. So at the age of 40, after bearing my first child—aware that my job and my family were too hard to reconcile—I left the newsroom and went back to school to study fiction.
German children have a toy they call the Stehaufmännchen. Our kids are half German, so we’ve had quite a few of these small "stand-up" men (pictured). He’s a fat fellow, made of plastic or wood, and weighted at the base. Every time you knock him over, he rolls drunkenly and then pops back up. The Stehaufmännchen has become my talisman: a symbol of the fortitude it takes to face a decade of rejection and to keep at it, day after day.
I don’t know many writers who would say it’s easy. Each day is still a kind of torture. Writing fiction is qualitatively different and harder, in my view, than memoir, narrative non-fiction, essays, criticism and advertising copy—all of which I’ve done. Every morning requires facing failure, picking up something half-made, working at it, pushing it forward, trying to advance and to not feel too discouraged. I send stories out and collect the rejections months later. I watch as my beloved novel makes the brief, dismissive rounds.
I have been helped by a lesson I learned years ago, apprenticed in a printer’s shop (a subject I returned to for my second novel, about the birth of printing and medieval guilds). I’ve come to see how helpful it can be to see ourselves as striving toward some mastery in craftsmen’s terms. The guilds have always known that it takes years to become skilled at a craft. The standard term was seven, split into years of formal training and then the “wander years”. Learning from mistakes has always been an inevitable part of the education.
What helps keep me going, though, is literature itself. With its heft, its moral purpose and its beauty, it is a counterweight to our increasingly flighty and commercial world. And in this, I’m very far from all alone. Most writers gird themselves with courage from like-minded souls. My writers’ group, my agent and the fellow writers I share work with all provide more than an eagle eye. They offer succour and seriousness of purpose, and a shared sense that writing is the most intense and most important brainwork that we do.
Lately, I am happy to report, the letters from editors are not all rejections, and those that are have been getting nicer—encouraging, even. My favourite one by far was labelled “Not Our Typical Rejection”. It seems that I am making some small progress. I’ve had to unlearn certain lazy journalistic tricks, and I have been working on detox from the rush I used to get from seeing my stories published the next day. Instead, I have the Stehaufmännchen, bobbing and then popping right back up.
We live in a time of extraordinary openness, when anyone with an internet connection can publish. Each time I go online or step into a bookstore, I am overcome by this tsunami of freshly published words. This torrent of expression inevitably provokes existentialism in a writer. What makes any of us think that we have something to say that others need to read?
If I have stuck to writing fiction through these long, hard years, the only reason is my belief that I have got a story that I must tell. It is this impulse—journalistic and human, as much as self-expressive—that is both anchor and guide.
The rest is simply grit and determination, qualities that all reporters have. I have never forgotten a comment made at a workshop by Karen Joy Fowler, a wonderful, successful writer. “I was neither the most talented nor the most clever writer in my writing group,” she told us. “But I was the one who stuck with it.” When things feel especially bleak, this becomes my mantra.
Like art of any kind, stories have a function in society. They offer new ways of seeing, of feeling empathy, of making sense of ourselves in this world. Novels, in particular, exist to give us courage. Mario Vargas Llosa, the new Nobel laureate in literature, said years ago that “fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis.” Cultures that contentedly share certitudes produce poetry and theatre, he averred. But novels are necessary, intimate tools for grappling with all that life throws at us.
As I struggle against the odds, it seems to me the act of writing in itself partakes of this same courage. It is an act of faith. Each day we legions of the unknown, we ten million, rise and face the blankness of the page. And in the painful act of making worlds, we make ourselves.
(Alix Christie was a semi-finalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and a finalist in Southwest Review's 2010 Meyerson Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Other Voices, "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" (from Foolscap Press) and Southwest Review.)
Picture credit: Wikimedia