Is addiction what a writer should want in readers?
Copyright has been with us two hundred years and more, but the consequent attention to sales numbers has been recently and dramatically intensified by electronic media and the immediate feedback it offers. Announce an article (like this one) on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc. Publish a novel and you can see at once where it stands on the Amazon sales ratings (I remember a publisher mailing me the link when my own novel Destiny amazingly crept into Amazon UK’s top twenty novels–for about an hour). Otherwise, you can track from day to day how many readers have reviewed it and how many stars they have given it. Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.
Franzen talks about this phenomenon in his recent novel Purity, suggesting that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” Hence the successful novelist is constantly encouraged to produce more of the same. “It’s incredible,” remarks Murakami in an interview, “I write a novel every three or four years, and people are waiting for it. I once interviewed John Irving, and he told me that reading a good book is a mainline. Once they are addicted, they’re always waiting.”
Well, is “addiction” what a literary writer should want in readers? And if a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same?
Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances. Anyway, here, for what it’s worth, are two reflections drawn from my own experience:
1. So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks. Certainly I would never have written books like Europa or Teach Us to Sit Still without the stability of a university job. I knew the style of Europa, obsessive and unrelenting, and the content of Teach Us to Sit Still, detailed accounts of urinary nightmares, would turn many off. And they did; one prominent editor refused even to consider Teach Us, because “the word prostate makes me queasy.” Yet both books found enthusiastic audiences who were excited to read something different.
2. When you’re trying to write something seriously new, don’t show it to anybody until it’s finished, don’t talk about it, seek no feedback at all. Cultivate a quiet separateness. “Anything great and bold,” observed Robert Walser “must be brought about in secrecy and silence, or it perishes and falls away, and the fire that was awakened dies.”
Oddly enough these are conditions that are most likely to hold at the beginning of your writing career when you’re hardly expecting to make money and nobody is waiting for what you do.