Writing Competitively

Tim Parks’s piece asking why published authors are shown so much respect begins with the career of Salman Rushdie. An easy mark. But Parks’s larger point still stands:

“No one is treated with more patronizing condescension than the unpublished author or, in general, the would-be artist. At best he is commiserated. At worst mocked. He has presumed to rise above others and failed. . . .Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition?”

Not only others, but published authors often suddenly ascend to a new level of existence:

“the day comes when wannabes, or at least a small percentage of them, are published. The letter, or phone call, or email arrives. In an instant life is changed. All at once youre being listened to with attention, youre on stage at literary festivals, youre under the spotlight at evening readings, being invited to be wise and solemn, to condemn this and applaud that, to speak of your next novel as a project of considerable significance, or indeed to pontificate on the future of the novel in general, or the future of civilization.I have often been astonished how rapidly and ruthlessly young novelists, or simply first novelists, will sever themselves from the community of frustrated aspirants. After years fearing oblivion, the published novelist now feels that success was inevitable, that at a very deep levelhe always knew he was one of the elect(something I remember V.S. Naipaul telling me at great length and with enviable conviction). Within weeks messages will appear on the websites of newly minted authors discouraging aspiring authors from sending their manuscripts. They now live in a different dimension. Time is precious. Another book is required, because there is no point in establishing a reputation if it is not fed and exploited. Sure of their calling now, they buckle down to it. All too soon they will become exactly what the public wants them to be: persons apart, producers of that special thing, literature; artists.”

Everything changes – marriage, relationships with children, the circle of friends. The published author may keep up his productivity, or may retreat into a very public a-publicity. But: “He must never acknowledge, or if he does so only ironically, as if really this were a joke, the fierce ambition that is driving this writing, and beneath that the presumption of an insuperable hierarchy between writer and reader, or simply writer and non-writer, such that the former is infinitely more important, and indeed somehow morerealthan the latter.”

There’s more in Parks’s article, but that’s enough to confirm a well-established fact: Writers are often very bad at being human.


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