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