A year or so ago, inside Euston Station, I bumped into a former student from the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA – Nicole Burstein. Since I first met Nicole she had gone, I hope she won’t mind me saying, from submitting some very angsty, introspective, scrappy prose for her first Writing and Reading workshop to publishing Othergirl and Wonderboy – extremely readable and quite successful YA fiction.
It was good to see Nicole. We stood on the station concourse, just outside Paperchase, chatting. Soon Nicole told me that her publisher and her agent were ganging up on her. They wanted her to keep the books coming, to do a deal for a series of four or five in a row – all basically the same book. Nicole said to me, ‘You don’t teach us that at Birkbeck – you don’t teach us how to cope with that.’
No, we don’t.
In the [Creative Writing MA] workshop, we don’t cover how to write the second and third and fourth books. Because although that’s the state that most successful authors find themselves in, our job – as I see it – is to help you get there, not to teach you how to stay there. So, no, we don’t usually teach you that.
But today… today, we do.
Today, for fun, I’m going to teach you How to Cope With Success.
And not just Success but
SUCCESS!!! Upper case. Three exclamation marks.
For fun, but what I want to ask is, What can every writer learn from those writers, or artists, or musicians – particularly musicians – who have been massively successful?
Let me absolutely indulge your ego, little for a while. Let me speak to you words rarely spoken:
You’re a Success.
You’re a SUCCESS!!!
You are a real writer, a superb writer, a major new writer. Your first book is fierce, sharp edged, painful. You have a voice so original and compelling that it reaches far beyond your original environment. Your characters explode off the page into the canon of our literature and our hearts. You are completely wonderful.
[Note: These are all adapted quotes from the back of Junot Díaz’s first book, Drown – which was the required reading for this lecture, delivered in Room B04, Gordon Square, London, on May 9th 2017.]
And let me speak also the words hidden beneath this, the words your writerly ego really wants to hear:
You are the finished article. You’ve found your voice. The hard work you’ve put in has paid off. From now on, all you need to do is keep writing and you’ll be fine. The readers are out there waiting for whatever you are gracious enough to bestow upon them. You’re going to be read now, and in a hundred years time, too – guaranteed. You’re out there in history now, babe.
Just to cap this off, let me speak some specific words to your ego. Or rather, let me get you to speak those words to it.
I’d like to repeat after me the following sentence, inserting your name in the obvious place:
Congratulations! So many congratulations.
Give yourself a round of applause.
But more than that…
Books are occasionally more successful than books can be, because they become phenomena, then they become films and TV series. Examples of this are Bridget Jones, The Beach, White Teeth, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl on the Train.
And it has happened for you, it really really has happened – for whatever reason, whatever combination of talent and luck, workshops, tutorials and creative writing tutors, agents and agents’ assistants, editors and publicity directors and marketing teams and accountants, literary editors and tastemakers, book geeks, readers and readers’ groups, librarians, prize committees, TV news editors, fashion magazine editors, stylists, film producers and directors and film production companies, games designers, advertising executives, merchandizing creatives, confectionery manufacturers, fellow successful writers…
You are ascending, fast. Perhaps the best thing ever written about writerly success is Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, published 1938. I’m going to be quoting from it, on and off; it’s a book you should read, now you’re a success – if you haven’t read it already.
Cyril Connolly said,
Success is a kind of moving staircase, from which an artist, once on, has great difficulty in getting off, encouraged by publicity, by fan-mail, by the tributes of critics and publishers and by the friendly clubmanship of his new companions.
[Cyril Connolly, The Selected Works of Cyril Connolly: Volume One: The Modern Movement, edited by Matthew Connolly, Picador, p125]
Cyril Connolly divided success up into three kinds, Social, Professional, and Popular. These are still useful categories, although the Social success has mostly mutated into Social Media success.
But I am just going to examine the ascending levels of success, as they happened to you – as you went up the moving staircase; just like the floors in Selfridges, seen from the escalator.
THE LEVELS OF SUCCESS
- You get a short story on a website.
- You get an agent who loves your work.
- You get a publisher who will pay you money for the book you have written.
- You get a foreign publisher who will pay you enough money for the book you have written for you to take as much time as you need to write another book.
- You quit the day job and are able to do nothing all day but write.
- You employ an accountant to help you deal with the money coming in from more foreign rights sales.
- You buy a large new house on the proceeds of your writing.
- You have a bespoke writing office built for you in your large new house.
- You employ a personal assistant to help you clear more time for writing.
- You employ a team of accounts to deal with the large amounts of money in film and merchandizing options.
- You have so much money that you need to start spending time managing your money with your expanding team of accountants.
- You have an office full of people whose full-time job it is to promote your writing career or rather your brand.
- You are so busy meeting your accountants and managing your brand that you no longer have time to write your own books, so you begin to supervise a team of ghost writers.
- Congratulations, you have become such a successful writer that you are no longer a writer.
Along with this, at various points, are other manifestations of success. For example:
- You are asked to do a fashion shoot.
- You are on the front page of a national publication, misquoted about your romantic relationship with another successful person.
- You are asked to comment in the media on things about which you know very little, and you accept some of these invitations.
- You become a representative of or a role model for X or Y.
- You become a brand ambassador for X or Y.
Maybe you think I’m being too cynical. I mean, it’s not like anyone ever asked me to do a fashion shoot.
Or misquoted me on the front cover of a national publication about my romantic relationship with another successful person.
Success changes you for other people, it also changes other people for you, and – most of all – success changes you for yourself.
I’m going to look that these three changes one after another, but they are all interrelated, interdependent – as I hope you’ll see.
First, how success has changed you for other people.
Without you noticing it at first, everyone you meet has now become excited about meeting you. Every room you enter has become a room with you in it. This may seem obvious, as if that’s what’s always happened. How could you not be in a room you’re in? But that’s not the case.
Back when you were taking the MA at Birkbeck, and you were in the queue at Tescos, about to buy your pre-workshop banana, that wasn’t a queue with you in it; maybe for you it was a queue with you in it, but for everyone else there it was just a queue; now, if Bob Dylan were in the checkout queue at Tescos, with a banana or some grapes, that would be a queue with Bob Dylan in it. For everyone else there, even those indifferent to Bob Dylan, as word got round, and as the buzz built about the presence of the man who won a Nobel Prize as well as an Oscar, that queue would not be a normal queue any more.
Every room Bob Dylan enters has, since about September 29th 1961, been mainly a room that Bob Dylan has just entered – and those rooms are (obviously) more similar, one to the other, than rooms without something in them so mood-altering as Bob Dylan. They’re all of them Bob Dylan rooms.
Bob Dylan in the Bob Dylan Room with Bob Dylan
Success changes how you are for other people. You end up having the same conversation again and again – it’s a conversation about you, and who you are, and who are you? The reason I’ve chosen Bob Dylan to talk about, rather than Prince Charles or Harry out of One Direction is that Bob Dylan has given us a verbatim account of the conversations he has when he enters the Bob Dyan Room and meets new people who are excited to meet him.
He said the following in 2004, when he was interviewed for the CBS television show 60 Minutes. They did a feature called ‘Dylan Looks Back’. It was around the time Dylan published his memoir Chronicles: Volume One.
Q: What did you mean when you wrote ‘the funny thing about fame is that nobody believes it’s you’?
Dylan: People, they’ll say, “Are you who I think you are?” An you’ll say, “I dunno.” Then they’ll say, “You’re him.” And you’ll say, “OK,” And you say, “Yes.” And then, the next thing they’ll say, “No, you’re really him? You’re not him.” And, you know, that can go on and on.
On and on and on, since 1961. Imagine that. The interview, too, went on.
Q: Do you go out to restaurants?
D: I don’t like to eat in restaurants.
Q: Because people come up and say, ‘Are you him?’
D: That’s always going to happen.
Q: Do you ever get used to it?
Massive success, I think, feels a little like this –
For a writer, what does this mean, being in the Bob Dylan room, being John Malkovich?
The Top Deck of the Bus
It means you are no longer able to sit on the top deck of the bus, day in and night out, and hear how people speak and misspeak when they don’t think anyone is listening to them – when they think they’re the only person in the room.
I remember Martin Amis a while ago saying he researched dialogue by rolling down the window of his car, and listening to what people said on the street. But that he didn’t actually get out of the car. Not any more. The playwright Joe Orton used to sit on the top deck of the bus and take notes. Joe Orton’s dialogue is more acute than Martin Amis’s. When Joe Orton became famous, his dialogue degenerated.
Your ability to write good dialogue is harmed by success – because if all success lets you hear is really bad dialogue, you’re going to start thinking that’s how people speak.
You cease to overhear the world and start only to hear the world’s confused questions as to who you really are or its prepared speeches for such an important guest as yourself. As a way of countering this, you could get desperate. You could adopt disguises, or start to frequent establishments where the patrons are so out of it that they really don’t care who you are. But I think writer’s best place is to be there, inconspicuously, on the top deck of the bus or in the corner of the room, catching the world giving itself away. The world on either its best or worst behaviour is equally banal. It’s all exposition.
A writer should not have to have a journalist’s intrustive relationship with people, confronting, asking, they should have a mouse’s inquisitive relation – they should constantly be sniffing, listening, sensing, but unlike a mouse remembering and writing too.
How do you deal with this?
How to Live in the Bob Dylan Room
I have met one man who was a little famous and who was especially good at being in the corner of the room, at being mouse-like – he was was the photographer Martin Parr.
I am going to talk about him for a bit because I think he can teach you how to live in the Bob Dylan Room.
I met Martin Parr at the Port Eliot Festival, after he had just given a wonderful, entertaining, witty, insightful talk illustrated with lots of his wonderful, entertaining, witty, insightful photographs. During the talk he’d mentioned that he had a way of making himself inconspicuous, so that he was able to be present in a very wide variety of places, taking photographs of people but being ignored by them. Martin Parr didn’t say what the technique was, and of course I wanted to find out. So I went up to him after the event, walked over to where he stood, out of the sun, under a tree, and introduced myself, and after telling him how much I’d enjoyed the talk, I asked what his secret invisibility technique was. He politely said he wasn’t going to tell me. As he spoke, Martin Parr looked down through the viewfinder of his camera and – I think – took a photograph of the tree trunk and of my shoes. There was an awkward, embarrassed silence. He was so boring to be with. He was like a black sun radiating tedium. The silence continued. Although I knew he was a very interesting man, all I wanted to do at that moment was get away from the awkwardness and embarrassment of this non-conversation. I gave up, and came away extremely disappointed – Martin Parr hadn’t thought I was good enough to share his secret invisibility technique with.
And then, months later, I realized that Martin Parr hadn’t told me his secret invisibility technique, of course not: he’d demonstrated it – but only if I was bright enough to notice that’s what he was doing.
Martin Parr disappeared right in front of my eyes – by making me want to get away from him, to take my eyes off him.
Martin Parr was the Master. He’d become so good at it, he could become obviously the most boring person in any room just by the vibes he gave off. And then, when the room was unaware, he would point his camera casually at it and capture its soul – I mean really get it.
A writer, any artist, should – when necessary – aim to appear to be the least interesting person in the room, in any room they are in. They should turn people off them and then shut up and listen. When it comes to the end of the evening or the meeting, then is they time they should come forwards and ask a question – if they haven’t got what they needed just by watching, listening, sniffing.
Some people open up to writers, spill their guts, but in a performative way. They advertise themselves as a subject for you to write about.
So, you should lie about what you do. You’ll never learn anything really interesting at a literary party. Gossip, yes, but not details of odd humanity going about its business.
I said that success changes you for other people, but it also changes other people for you.
Success changes other people for you
To be incredibly interesting to everyone around you immediately makes everyone around you incredibly boring to you.
You are already coming to miss low pressure conversations, those ones in which people aren’t blurting out the one thing they fear they will die regretting they never took the opportunity to say to you. “I love your work. I love your work. I love your work.”
And they do love your work. Boy, do they love your work.
Hands up anyone here who can name Alex Garland’s first novel? [I expect almost everyone to know, partly because I’ve mentioned it earlier.] Right. The Beach.
Now, hands up anyone who can name Alex Garland’s second novel? [I am expecting almost no-one to know this.] It was called The Tesseract.
Around the time Alex Garland was writing The Coma and also the screenplay for his incredibly successful zombie movie 28 Days Later, we used to meet up. He was in an anthology I was in, called All Hail the New Puritans. He and I became sort of friends. And he was quite honest about how much he disliked being a successful novelist. Not because of the success part, but because of the working conditions. He didn’t like being alone in a room by himself, with full responsibility for what he was writing. He told he much prefered writing as part of a writer-director-producer team to writing by himself. He said novel writers are misers, they keep all their best ideas, their gold, to themselves. When they think up something good, their instinct is immediately to bury it under a rock so no-one can steal it. Writing teams, by contrast, plonk all their gold into the middle of the table straight away – they share their best ideas, pool them, and when one idea doesn’t excite the others in the team, they come up with a better one. This was how Alex Garland wanted to live and work.
Alex also told me, with some self-disgust, the story of trying to buy a house. He had reached that buying-a-new-house-with-a bespoke-office level of success. He told me that every estate agent he dealt with had read and loved his first novel, The Beach; not a single one of the estate agents he dealt with had heard of The Tesseract, which Alex thought was the better novel. In fact, many of the estate agents asked Alex when he was going to write another book – because they thought he’d only written one. And when they said another book, they meant another book like The Beach that was getting made into a film starring Leonardo di Caprio, about whom the estate agents knew everything.
To be a successful writer is to be beloved by estate agents for a previous version of yourself, and to realise that you are writing your next book either for or not for them, and that you are writing it either as yourself or as the previous version of yourself that all estate agents loved. Think about that for a moment. Think about what that’s likely to make you feel about people – because they are no longer just people, they are an audience, your audience, an audience that (if you’re to continue being successful) needs to contain estate agents and people like estate agents. People you don’t necessarily like, or respect –sbecause if they knew who you really were, they wouldn’t necessarily like, or respect, you.
The poet W.H.Auden said,
When some obvious booby tells me he has liked a poem of mine, I feel as if I had picked his pocket.
Now, are you already coming to think your audience are boobies? And, if so, with your next book are you going to pick their pockets again?
There’s a converse version of this. And now we’re coming on to Junot Díaz –born 1968, the author of Drown, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her. He is also the author of several unpublished, uncompleted genre novels including one called Monstro.
I don’t have an Alex Garland and the estate agent story about Junot Díaz, so I’m going to have to imagine one. I’m going to imagine a Junot Díaz with the book reviewer story – with the really intelligent, attractive, enthusiastic book reviewer – Junot Díaz, in other words, with one of his ideal readers. His first book has come out, and it’s doing okay. He’s always been a geeky guy. And now this girl, this cool book reviewer, is interested in him, because of what he’s written. The logic is – if he wants to keep literary girls like this being interested in him, he better keep writing the same kind of stuff. And he really better not disappoint them or dismay them.
Just as from one estate agent you can move up to a whole audience, so from one cool literary reviewer you can also escalate to a literary community – call it Brooklyn.
Writing to ingratiate yourself to Brooklyn is just as bad as writing to ingratiate yourself to estate agents – and imagine trying to do both.
If you read you own reviews just before you write, you will have a head full of objections – a swelled head or a shrunken head, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a normal-sized head. It’s always best to write with as normal sized head as you can manage.
Junot Díaz said something very deep about this.
He was being interviewed by Hilton Als, the New Yorker’s theatre critic, at the Strand Bookstore in New York, in front of a giant typewriter:
JD: I wrote my first book, and the sales would convince you not to be a writer, but it got some notoriety among people who were into fiction, among public school teachers, Dominicans, and allies, such as the Puerto Rican, the Cuban, the Chicano community, but that was it. I wrote this book in 1996, and I spent the next eleven years having like no career. I had a six-year period where I didn’t even publish like a minor essay. It was awesome. I got this little burst of attention, then I proceeded to lose . . . When I hear my students talking, they have all this professional language. They are all ready to be famous; they use words like momentum. So part of the experience of Oscar Wao was out-waiting my desire to sound like my students. I didn’t want to hear myself saying, “You’ve gotta publish this fast, you’ve got momentum. Strike while people know who you are.” I remember spending at least five years just waiting for that voice to die, for real. I didn’t write anything useful until that voice died, till it no longer had control of the board. When I finally heard the voice say, “Well, you should just write the bad book that you knew you were going to write, because you suck,” I was like go. It took sixteen years for This Is How You Lose Her to get done. I had to keep wrestling with that voice. I had to wait for the moments that voice died, so I could write the next chapter. If it would flare up again I wouldn’t be able to work on the book.
Junot Díaz is a big comics fan, so I hope he’d appreciate me – at this moment – showing you a panel from a great graphic novel Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.
What Junot Díaz is saying, about how to deal with the estate agents and the cool reviewers who give a successful writer momentum, is, I think, Disregard.
Disregard the inner voice that says, ‘Be strategic – write something that will get you where you need to me.’
There is nothing wrong with writing towards readers or towards lots of readers, there is something very wrong with writing towards publicists.
Disregard your agent, for example. Disregard your editor.
Cyril Connolly, in Enemies of Promise, says the writer must ask of their work, ‘Would it amuse Horace or Milton or Swift or Leopardi?’
This may seem more than a little pretentious, but Cyril Connolly’s writers don’t have to be your ‘supreme critical court’. If you’re writing crime fiction, you can appoint Agatha Christie, P.D. James, James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith. If you’re writing fantasy, then it can be Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey Ursula Le Guin, George R.R.Martin, whoever.
How do you do that? Well, if you want to disregard one thing it’s a good idea to regard something else – to become obsessed with it, to become addicted to it.
A lot of musicians cope with their fame by becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs – if they weren’t addicted before they became famous.
I think this is partly because it normalises their priorities. Someone very successful might seriously think about buying a private island. A successful alcoholic will seriously think about the next drink, and that’s more normal.
It would not be responsible of me to suggest you become addicted to alcohol, or to drugs, or to anything of any sort – except to writing.
Frank Auerbach said,
It seems to me madness to wake up in the morning and do something other than paint, considering that one may not wake up the following morning…
Auerbach lives by this. He works all the time. He goes to the cinema once a year. He could afford to buy any number of private islands.
Auerbach has worked in the same small studio in Camden near Mornington Crescent since 1954 – when he could, years ago, for the price of one painting, have moved into a huge bespoke warehouse studio in Islington.
Why does Frank Auerbach not move? I think in part he is superstitiously attached to his workplace – every drip or piece of tape on the floor is significant, or at least it’s not a new, bare, meaningless floor; but I think it is mostly because he did not want to waste even a week’s worktime in looking for a new studio or even a moment’s work in thinking about looking for one.
Auerbach, in other words, was kept safe from the temptations of success by addiction.
You should put your concentration where you concentration should be put – where, when you come to glance back on your life (if you’re lucky enough to live long enough) you would wish to have put it: into words, into a good page.
When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, her wonderful reaction was this –
‘Oh Christ,’ she says.
Meaning, I think, ‘Well, that’s the next three month’s writing time completely bolloxed.’ She was just back from the greengrocers, and clearly didn’t know this was the day the Nobel committee would be announcing its decision. Doris Lessing had disregarded it.
I’ve said, success changes you for other people, and other people for you, but most crucially it changes you for yourself.
I’ll start by saying success will inevitably mess with your sense of self and fuck you up. Even if you put a great deal of effort into consciously avoiding having your mind fucked with by success, this – in itself – will fuck with your mind.
Most writers don’t spend a great deal of time thinking,
I mustn’t worry about whether my Japanese editor will like this second book.
I’ve spoken about this to a couple of really successful writers who are also friends. One said it had taken her upwards of a decade to admit just how fucked up by success she had been.
After you won that first big literary prize, you inevitably started to think
What if I’m a big fake?
Oh no, I must be a big fake!
or even worse,
I’m a big fake and sooner or later everyone is going to work it out, and that will be incredibly humiliating for me.
The greater the success, the greater the self-suspicion.
Even more than book prizes, book sales cause self-suspicion.
If thousands of readers, not just a few prize judges, respond to you with love, without hesitation, isn’t that just a little too easy? – haven’t you, perhaps even without knowing it, ingratiated yourself to them? Don’t you have a horribly craven, love-seeking soul?
So, what about rejecting all of this? Climb off the elevator and take the stairs down.
The favourite thing I heard anybody say last year came from a woman who worked in publishing. We were having a conversation about writers like Pynchon and Salinger who didn’t play the game. No interviews. No profile. I said these writers could afford to do this because they were rich. Then I mentioned some contemporary writers who didn’t do publicity, twitter, Facebook. The woman, however, said they weren’t like Pynchon and Salinger. Instead, she compared them to an ex-boyfriend who had dumped her. She said,
Wouldn’t the gesture of rejecting success – walking away – be just that, really needy? Wouldn’t it mean you were like this guy?
I’m not going to be the person I’m expected to be any more
is exactly the kind of mental shit you’re now having to deal with – not the pretty boy angst, but the fact that your anxieties are perhaps no deeper than the pretty boy’s, and certainly no more relevant to anyone who isn’t successful.
In the follow-up ad the tag-line is –
You are forever becoming who you are.
These are the kind of psychic convolutions you don’t have to deal with, when you’re ignored.
‘Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me,’ Samuel Beckett wrote; ‘in fact I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life.’ [Letter to Alan Schneider, 1956.]
Self-consciousness isn’t good, at the moment of putting the words down; you shouldn’t be looking at yourself looking at something (not unless, essentially, that’s what that piece of your fiction is about), you need to be looking at the thing in itself, the idea in your head or the words on the page, as much as is humanly or inhumanly possible. A bit of you is fine, but too much is Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.
How to Write The Second Book
Writing and publishing a successful first book is like making a great first impression.
Making a great first impression is far easier than changing what an acquaintance – however passing – thinks about you.
Say your first book was a success because it was in some way full of charm. Any attempt to recreate this will be as impossible as meeting someone for the second time and making a wonderful first impression.
So, thinking in terms of musicians, we go from the Second Book to Second Album Syndrome, or the perils of releasing the second album that’s about coping with the success of the first album.
Second Album Syndrome is often summed up as,
You have your whole life to write your first album, and the label gives you six months for your second.
Success is now the obstruction between you and your subject, and it’s understandable why you might take the obvious short cut and turn the obstruction into your subject.
How should you write your second book?
Well, the most obvious thing to say is that you need to write it – you need to be doing the writing rather than doing other things.
A novelist needs to write good sentence after good sentence, then go back to cut some of them and to make the rest of them better and to write some new ones; then to go back to them again, and again, as many times as is necessary. Their life needs to be stable enough, by which I probably mean boring enough, for them to be able to do this day after day with regularity of soul and constancy of attack.
Winning a big literary prize or visiting a stimulating literary festival a seven hour long-haul flight away in between one paragraph and the next is likely to have a negative effect on the relationship between those two paragraphs. And, even more disturbingly, you will be a different person upon your return to the page. This can, sometimes, perhaps, be beneficial – if these transformations co-incide with the ending of a draft.
Finish a draft, travel, become a different person, return to begin a new draft – that rhythm can work.
More often, though, exciting interruptions will stop you writing completely, because you’re changing too much as a person to work consistently on the same piece of writing.
You need to be doing the writing rather than doing other things. You, meaning you with enough consistency of you-ness to maintain a steady attitude towards your next book. Steady attitude means even tone; unsteady attitude means a mess than never gets finished.
Chances are, the more successful you become, the more likely it is your life will be one of perpetual interruption. This interruption isn’t the same as getting up from your laptop because someone’s at your door delivering a package, or your child coming into the room and asking to buy FIFA points on their phone.
Winning prizes and travelling are interruptions of the soul – these are events that want to obtrude upon you, ask you who you really are, pose you a series of detailed and intricate philosophical questions, sleep with you, make you fall in love with them then dump you in a really needy way.
Essentially, my advice to you is to maintain your headspace; at some level, you need always to be thinking of your writing.
You will need to become very good at being interrupted, at being an interrupted being.
Here is Díaz speaking to Hilton Als wisely, self-disgracingly, about success.
Q: You describe this childhood of deprivation, and this experience of growing up with crazy role models. How do you explain the fact that you succeeded so beautifully, and didn’t succumb to all the other terrible things that could have happened to you and follow these dysfunctional paths?
JD: But who says I haven’t? I’m not just being tendentious. This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement. So, “How did you make it?” Listen, this is very important to understand, I don’t speak the language of “make it.” Our moment, in late capital, has no problem, through its contradictions, occasionally granting someone ridiculous moments of privilege, but that’s not what matters. In other words, we can elect Obama, but what does that say about the fate of the African-American community? We have no problem in this country rewarding individuals of color momentarily as a way never to address structural cannibalistic inequalities that are faced by the communities these people come out of.
And the record ain’t done yet. Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties towards people? I just mean . . . I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way they have avoided any of the dysfunctions. That is the kind of Chaucerian, weird physiognomy-as-moral-status. We don’t know anything about anybody. Yes, I have made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I am reminded of most acutely is not of my “awesomeness,” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle. What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.
I think this is the best way – to think beyond success, beneath success, to think the less of oneself, to think the less of success.
But the crucial words are in the last sentence. ‘I am representative.’
If you read the first reviews Junot Díaz received for Drown, you will see him being appointed as representative – as representative of Dominican Americans. To say Junot Díaz is extremely conflicted about this role is to understate; to say he is extremely funny about it is true.
Here is a sentence from the second story in Drown, ‘Fiesta, 1980’ –
‘Tío said, Wait a minute, I want to show you the apartment. I was glad Tía said Hold on, because from what I’d seen so far, the place had been furnished in Contemporary Dominican Tacky. The less I saw, the better. I mean, I liked plastic sofa covers but damn, Tío and Tía had taken it to another level. They had a disco ball hanging in the living room and the type of stucco ceilings that looked like stalactite heaven. The sofas all had golden tassels hanging from their edges.
[Drown, pg 24-25]
Imagine if I’d written that paragraph but had made some funny observations about ‘Contemporary Ghanaian Tacky’ or ‘Contemporary Pakistani Tacky’.
A representative is able to say stuff about those they are representing that from anyone else would be offensive or even racist, because they have that cultural authority. But pressure is also put upon them to cast those they are representing in as good a light as possible. Otherwise they’re harming the community that produced them, the family that nurtured them, etcetera.
If any writer makes a character say something objectionable, that can be misattributed to the writer. But if a famous author writes a racist character, and has them say something memorably awful; that phrase can be selectively misquoted, by the media or on social media, as by that writer, as that writer’s opinion. To be famous is to be taken out of context. But if you are representative, this goes further. That phrase can be selectively misquoted as representative of these people, these people you represent. You have a people and you are spokesperson for your people.
There’s another side to this, too. However much you like it, your writing is simplified by its reception.
When a famous writer like you puts a character in a novel who is, say, Egyptian, they are not writing about a specific character with pleasant and unpleasant idiosyncracies who happens to come from Egypt. They are – because they cannot avoid it (because other people choose it to be the case) – they are writing their definitive and perhaps only description of an Egyptian, of Egypt, of all Egyptian society and culture.
J.K.Rowling, say, puts an Egyptian woman who happens to wear a niqab in her next novel – that, right there, is J.K.Rowling’s definitive female Egyptian character; and, probably, her female Arab character. No nuance, no chance of explanation – except on twitter. (Though it turns out, J.K.Rowling is fairly fearsome on twitter.) However I am sure J.K.Rowling and her editors think very carefully about the nationality, race, religion, sexuality, gender, etcetera, of any character she chooses to depict. More carefully than you had to do, when you were back taking your Creative Writing MA – because, back then, when you made fictional choices they were very unlikely to result in death threats, vandalism to your car, your children being bullied at school, the loss of Egyptian friends, protests from the Egyptian Embassy…
Readers – contemporary readers anyway – don’t just go to novels for stories, although there are some novelists who insist on just writing stories; contemporary readers, time-poor, go to novels for value added on their own time – to read a good story but also to learn about something new, a class or group in their own society or people who live in another part of the world or in another world.
Quite often they want to have it demonstrated for them how these people behave radically differently but how they are ultimately the same – the same at heart.
Weird customs; normal hearts – that’s the formula.
When Junot Díaz published Drown, he was welcomed, hailed, feted as a new voice who could bring readers exactly the right kind of new news. He was someone marginal who could, it seemed, easily be centralized. He wasn’t entirely Other; he was writing mostly in English. To read him you needed a glossary but not a translator.
Junot Díaz knew all this might happen – if he was lucky, or unlucky: the appointment as representative, the cultural assimilation. To ward off the evil eye, he chose as an epigraph these words of Gustavo Pérez Firmat – the writer and scholar, born in Cuba, raised in Florida:
‘The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.’
To read Junot Díaz’s Drown, as a white, middle-class American, was an act of cultural graciousness. It was to show one was paying attention to what some of one’s fellow citizens, less fortunate, less literate, were getting up to. Curiosity was answered, because Díaz had secret knowledge. He wrote and spoke with cultural authority about a culture and the way it related both to the dominant culture and a handful of subcultures. To read Drown was, for white, middle-class Americans, to slum it pleasurably in Contemporary Dominican Tacky. It was to sit on the plastic sofa covers, and accept them.
How can Junot Díaz reasonably cope with this – all this cultural situatedness – other than by disregarding it?
Well, I think he could do what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has done. She has turned around on those who have appointed her as representative, and she has addressed them and the wider world, she has taken on the role of moral spokesperson reluctantly and absolutely – just as Arundati Roy did, or James Baldwin. She has written polemically, and to do this she has set aside the fiction she would rather be writing, because she’s decided it’s more important to represent than to disregard. It’s a brave thing to do, and she’s doing it well. Junot Díaz answers the questions when they’re asked of him, and brings up the subject when it’s being avoided, but he has yet to write a polemic – and I doubt he will.
Am I suggesting that the main way to cope with becoming successful is to become unsuccessful as quickly as possible?
Thinking in musician terms, this is the Neil Young Gambit.
As he wrote in the liner notes to Decade, his treble-album compilation:
“Heart of Gold” [his biggest hit song] put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.
More interesting people because they weren’t all just interested in him, Neil Young. You’re him, aren’t you?
After ‘Heart of Gold’, Neil Young released three albums, now known as his ‘ditch’ trilogy. He did the same thing later on. In the 1980s, after Geffen Records accused him of making ‘albums impossible to promote’, and tried to reclaim the money they’d paid him, Young said,
Getting sued by your record company for making ‘uncommercial records’ after twenty years in the business, that’s even better than receiving a Grammy.
Cyril Connolly’s advice to successful writers was this,
To refuse all publicity which does not arise from the quality of his work, to beware giving his name to causes, to ration his public appearances, to consider his standards and the curve of development which he feels latent within him, yet not indulge in gestures which are hostile to success when it comes…
My advice is this:
Trust your work – trust your work to save you from everything that isn’t your work.
Work makes the companion.
This makes work sound like Frankenstein’s monster, in it’s original iteration – Dr Frankenstein made his monster because he wanted a companion, a helpmate.
Develop an addiction to writing; make writing your coping mechanism.
Make writing your coping mechanism for not writing.
Make writing your coping mechanism for feeling unable to write.
Make writing your coping mechanism for feeling you really can’t write.
Always choose more time over more money.
As long as you have the time to write, you are as successful as you need to be.
That sounds banal, and self-helpy, but I haven’t been able to put it any better.
So, rather than finishing there, I’d like to nail down a definition.
What is True Success?
- Success is having lots of money, sex, fame, esteem, prizes, cool.
- Success is gaining an audience
Well, yes – but it’s more than that.
- Success is gaining a paying audience
They might not stick around.
- Success is gaining and then keeping a paying audience
But you need to be able to write what you want, so,
- Success is gaining and then keeping
a paying and indulgent audience
And you might mess up, so,
- Success is gaining and then keeping
a paying, indulgent and forgiving audience
Yes, and it has to be added,
- Success is gaining and then keeping
a paying, indulgent and forgiving audience that you respect
And even more so,
- Success is gaining and then keeping
a paying, indulgent and forgiving audience that you respect
and that respects you
On his blog, in 2009, Neil Gaiman answered a question from a reader called Gareth:
When writing a series of books, like [George RR] Martin is with “A Song of Ice and Fire” what responsibility does he have to finish the story? Is it unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down, even though if and when the book gets written is completely up to him?
Neil Gaiman replied by saying:
Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is “letting you down”.
Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:
This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.
People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.
You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.
No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.
- Success is having a great audience
Success, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this,
Success is not being anybody’s bitch
The graphic novel I wrote in collaboration with Neil Gaiman, and a bunch of other people, Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade, is published in paperback in a couple of weeks.