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The dilemma of a successful writer

Nilanjana S Roy | September 06, 2005

With two days to go before the Booker shortlist is announced, this is as good a moment as any to consider the dilemma of the successful writer today.

'Success' is an increasingly contentious term in literary circles. Should you judge a writer's work by the size of her audience, the number of prizes she's won, the number of column inches she commands?

Of course not, and yet to ignore the demands of success is to ignore the fact that publishing itself has changed irrevocably in this century. Can authors be manufactured?

Look around you; from the kings of self-help sagas to celeb-lit, all the way up to the buffed products of creative writing courses, programmed to turn out smooth, perfect, short stories and novels at the touch of a button, the assembly line is working at speed.

Is novel/ fiction/ writing itself dead, threatened by (fill in the blanks) technology/ information overload/ the rise of functional illiteracy? As a product, no: there are more books being published today than at any other point of human history.

As a vehicle for ideas, well, Milan Kundera argued decades ago that to look at a novel merely as a receptacle for ideas was to commit a despicable act of anti-reading.

As entertainment, as spectacle, the book is alive; as an emblem of the quietly insurgent act of reading, the late Saul Bellow was right when he argued that every generation produces its own set of readers, even as it laments the death of the reader.

Through this century, the dilemma of the writer has never been more acute. If he chooses to retreat into silence, like Thomas Pynchon and J D Salinger, that silence generates comment anyway. If he chooses to be part of the publicity machine, he does the circuit: the airport shuffle, the interviewer dance, the switch from conference to literary festival -- it's the same old dance.

J M Coetzee is one of the few authors who's found a way out -- by using fiction as his shield. Coetzee is on the Booker longlist for The Slow Man, but it's of little moment whether he makes it on to the shortlist or not. What's interesting about Coetzee is how the South African writer has slowly erected a defence around the figure of the author using only the tools of fiction.

In 2003, Coetzee gave the oddest acceptance speech in the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He thanked no one; he made no reference to the Prize; he told the story of a fictional character whose fictions were brought to him by another man. It was a device he had used before.

Asked to give a speech, he reads stories about an author asked to give a speech. Invited to a conference in Amsterdam on the nature of evil, he read out a story by a fictional writer called Elizabeth Costello who, in the story, had been invited to a conference, in Amsterdam, to speak on the nature of evil.

In time, he writes a book called Elizabeth Costello. In the book, he invents a writer who is famous for her fifth book, the one that rewrites James Joyce's Ulysses from the perspective of Molly Bloom.

Costello gives lectures, usually to disastrous effect; the lectures she gives are amended versions of lectures that Coetzee has already given himself. In The Slow Man, Costello returns -- as a character in someone else's story.

Metafiction is an old device, as old as Cervantes, and if you consider the frame stories in the Mahabharata, perhaps as old as story telling itself. Philip Roth came close to anticipating Coetzee's methods when he invented Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared as a character in two autobiographical short stories written by another Roth creation, the writer Peter Tarnopol.

Zuckerman lasted longer in Roth's fiction than Tarnopol, and the standard reading of the character was that he was Roth's alter ego, which was both true and an oversimplification of the truth.

But perhaps Coetzee understood the world rather better than Roth. The only proper response an author can offer in the age of the soundbyte and the seminar circuit is to put forward his fictions instead of himself, and let them do the talking.

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