Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Sort of Life - Celia Rees

At the end of his autobiographical memoir, Graham Greene says:

'For a writer, I argued, success is always temporary, success is only a delayed failure. A writer's ambition is not satisfied like the business man's by a comfortable income, although he sometimes boasts of it like a nouveau riche.
The writer has the braggart's excuse. Knowing the unreality of his success he shouts to keep his courage up. There are faults in his work which he alone detects...'

The real satisfaction lies in putting those things right, in other words in the writing itself.

Graham Greene was a great writer, one who understood not only how prose works, but the inner workings of those who produce it.

As I read this, I was struck by the truth of it. I'm sure there will be many who will deny it, but they know in their hearts that this is true. We ARE never satisfied. Once we are over the first great hurdle, that of getting our work published at all, then there are other goals to achieve: prizes, sales, money, fame, recognition. We need other people to recognise the worth of our work, and through that, ourselves. Even if we gain everything, prizes, fame, money, the whole works, then we still know that our star will inevitably fade. Success is fleeting, at best.

We now have more ways to shout, to keep our courage up. We can blog, tweet and twitter, post videos on YouTube. We can be out there, like barkers at some virtual literary fair, shouting out out wares, bidding readers to come see, come buy, know about us. I wonder what GG would think about all that?

Yesterday, I came across the wise words of another great writer: Margaret Atwood.

I was directed by Adele Geras to where I found this quote from an interview in the Literary Review:

'...people are trying to pile stuff onto authors, like you have to blog, you have to have this, you have to have that. Various party tricks. You actually don't ... an author's job is to concentrate on the writing, and once the writing is finished what you essentially do is throw it into a bottle and heave it into the sea... There is still a voyage between the text and the unknown reader; the book will still arrive at the door of some readers who don't understand it - who don't like it. It will still find some readers who hopefully do...'

I guess people will say, she would say that, wouldn't she? Just as it is easy to dismiss Graham Greene's words - how much more successful can a writer be? But I don't think these observations come from self satisfaction and complacency. They come from the very things that make these two such successful writers: their powers of observation, depth of insight, honesty and courage to express thoughts that might be unpalatable, but are nonetheless true. The only real satisfation has to come from the words we put down on the page and the connection we make with readers, no matter how many, or how few.


Penny Dolan said...

Perceptive post. So to shout and not to shout, that is the question?

Andrew Strong said...

Absolutely! And I think this what defines an artist: whether goals are intrinsic. External goals are usually profoundly shallow. (And I adore Graham Greene's novels - he achieves something I can only dream about: a texture and atmosphere that is like no other author.)

Stroppy Author said...

Very true. But are we *ever* satisfied? Doesn't the written text always fall short of the ideal, the book it was in our minds before/while writing it?

adele said...

I love the photo of Margaret Atwood that you've found, Celia, and I'm glad you enjoyed the quote. I agree rather with M A and feel that, brilliant as tweeting/blogging/shouting etc may be, IF YOU ENJOY DOING IT, part of all that is the job of the publishers and that pushing authors to do everything themselves is sort of passing the parcel in a way. I am still waiting to know the difference in ACTUAL COPIES SOLD between a book that is tweetless and a book that is tweeted.

Celia Rees said...

I loved that picture, too. And thanks for pointing me to the blog, Adele. I always enjoy reading what MA has to say about writing. Always wise, down to earth and unpretentious but maybe that is because she doesn't need to shout.

Debs Riccio said...

When I grow up I want to be able to wear a hat as effortlessly stylish as MA. What a fab pic. And how timely her quote. I am FOREVER worried about whether I have enough virtual exposure, and I'm not even published yet! At times it feel so cut-throat and competitive that I think my sensitive writerly skin can't take it and I'll have to delete all my social-networking accounts and throw my MS into the metaphorical bottle and let it ride the waves... I'm always wondering if Jane Austen/Dickens would've 'enjoyed' the mass hysteria as much as everybody else seems to?

Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent blog, Celia, and I feel agin spending ages on social networking, because then I'd have no time to write. One thing to dash off a comment like this, or a message on Balaclava, but to keep up my own blog, and do it all the time - I just can't. I've tried. So blogging on ABBA is enough for me.
However!!! When GG was arrested somewhere in Latin America, the first thing he did was to dictate a telegramme telling the world about it. He knew the value of publicity all right. Mind, I can't now remember if that was before or after he was released. If before, it might also have been a piece of self-preservation!!!