Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Salinger’s Safe – Katherine Roberts

There is a rumour that in the years before he died, JD Salinger finished his manuscripts and locked them away in a safe so nobody could publish them in his lifetime. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” This makes me wonder why I am so frustrated when I have a finished manuscript that – for whatever reason – is not published. Surely, if the work is the most important thing, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to it once it is finished? So why not lock your manuscripts away in a safe? Or simply burn them? Your work as a creator of stories has been done.

Looking at it from this perspective, and leaving aside any higher aims such as providing a service to readers (let’s face it, there are plenty of other writers perfectly capable of providing the same, if not better, service), then I believe the desire for publication must come down to two things: ego and money. If you have a private income and honestly don’t care about getting paid for your work, then it must be pure ego that makes an author submit a manuscript for publication. To egoists, the work is worthless unless someone reads it – and preferably loves it and praises it, though even negative comments are better then nothing if you are the sort of author who needs hordes of adoring fans in order to write. In fact, if you have enough ego and enough money, you’ll probably bypass the whole painful submission process and publish yourself so you can bask in the celebrity status it conveys. If, on the other hand, you need an income in order to write, then that can be just as strong a reason to desire publication. In fact, maybe it is those writers who have both healthy ego and need for income who are most likely to succeed in being published, because they have double the drive and double the reward at the end.

So back to Salinger and his safe. Death neatly removes both ego (unless you happen to believe in an afterlife where such things will matter) and need for money (assuming you are not leaving behind any dependents). In that case, the muse being satisfied and the work being complete, surely there would be little point in leaving those manuscripts behind for publication? It’s an interesting thought, and brings me to a third reason people might write – not for personal ego or money, but a very human desire to leave something behind us when we go. A passing on of the genes, which is something most people achieve through having children. So a writer, particularly a childless one, might write to leave part of their soul behind. That is the kind of manuscript I can imagine putting into my safe. Out of the books I have written so far, "I am the Great Horse" would fall into that category. On the other hand, I’d probably burn anything written specially for the market, particularly if it remains unpublished, because without readers that kind of manuscript has no reason for existing.

And before you all begin to worry I’m about to drop dead tomorrow, I will say here that as far as I know I’m not – unless I should choose to, of course, which is not an uncommon way for writers to go when backed into a creative corner. But at the risk of sounding morbid, you can’t escape the fact everyone dies sooner or later, and death seems rather more sure to me than taxes in this profession. So when the hooded figure with the sickle approaches, assuming he gives you a bit of time to plan, what would YOU do with your unpublished manuscripts? Or am I the only one thinking about buying a very large safe?

Visit Katherine’s website at www.katherineroberts.co.uk
And find out what her unicorn muse is up to at http://reclusivemuse.blogspot.com


Anna Bowles said...

I'm not sure ego and money are the only possible reasons - it's also possible to genuinely believe that your work makes the world a better place, and that it helps people.

Of course, that motivation can easily merge into ego, but reader responses that reinforce it range from the general ('I love your work, your books make me happy') to the intense ('Thank you for writing that novel about anorexia, it helped me help my friend').

The more intense reactions may be rare, but stories can and do help people.

Nick Green said...

Your post resonates with me. More than once I have thought, while writing my current book, that I would be happier just putting the finished manuscript to one side, and moving on to the next, than going through the bother and inevitable disappointment of trying to get the thing onto shelves.

And yet, and yet... I too feel there must be a valid reason for publishing. Perhaps it does come down to ego, but then why assume that ego is bad? We should not feel guilty about standing up and saying I MADE THIS. We would encourage our own children to do so, and to be proud of doing so, so long as that pride does not become arrogance or vanity.

As for what to do with unpublished books... Ha! When we had our downstairs floor laminated, I found a loose floorboard under the carpet. The manuscript of my first, unpublished children's novel is now down there. One day, perhaps...!

Anne said...

I think that I want my books published because I want my stories read. That's not 'ego'. That's just workmanship, surely. If I were a dressmaker I'd want to make dresses that people could wear? Or an architect I'd want to design houses for people to live in. It's only one half of a job if you write something. The piece itself doesn't 'live' unless someone reads it.
No, Salinger. I don't buy it!

Kathleen Jones said...

I don't think it's ego either. Or 'showing off' as someone once said. I think writing is communication and when we write we have this deep compulsion to communicate some essential part of ourselves to other people. Surely that's just part of being human?

Becky said...

What a fascinating post!
How about publishing the manuscript for the joy that you are giving those people who read it and connect to the characters, the story, the questions it asks?
Many people find satisfaction in their jobs by making a difference to people. I see writers as no different. A great book can give something to the soul. Why would any writer wish to deny a reader this opportunity?

Stroppy Author said...

This is really interesting, Katherine.

Isn't there also an element of self-realisation? And publication is the recognition or endorsement that we did the task properly? I know that's not an entirely reliable measure, but it is one many of use have internalised. Publication completes the work. I guess you don't need self- realisation when you're dead.

Katherine Roberts said...

I don't think ego is bad, just necessary to desire publication... unless you're writing something to commission, when maybe ego becomes a handicap? I see "showing off" as an extreme form of ego - egotism, which is less healthy and probably more common on the self-publishing scene. A very fragile ego is unlikely to send anything off to an editor, so unlikely to get published in the first place.

Stories as dresses... love it... maybe unpublished manuscripts stapled together will be all the rage on the catwalk next season? Imagine turning up at a party wearing the next Harry Potter!

Nick, what a brilliant idea to leave a manuscript time capsule... My house is on the market, so I'm going to prise up a floorboard right now.

Andrew Strong said...

I'm a headteacher of a primary school: these days only the early mornings and the weekends are devoted to my writing - but those hours are magical, and without them, I would feel I'd lost the ability to see in colour.