Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Writers Who Can't ... Or Won't

Catherine Keenan, the new literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, looks at why some of the best fiction writers simply ... stop writing.

There are those writers who appear to have been crippled by early success, she says:
Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood was enormously successful in America but he never published another book after it.

Harper Lee "made the greatest literary debut of all time" with To Kill a Mockingbird: she won the Pulitzer and sold more than 10 million copies but since then has produced only three magazine articles.

F.Scott Fitzgerald "became an alcoholic wash-up" after The Great Gatsby.

J.D. Salinger never followed up The Catcher in the Rye.

And says Keenan, there are those writers who are paralysed by a lack of success:

Herman Melville wrote very little after Moby Dick bombed, commercially and critically.

Barbara Pym gave up writing entirely after her novels were rejected and moved to the country with her cat. (In 1980 she received more nominations for the most underated novelist of the century than any other writer).

Then there are the writers who enjoy a period of success and then just give up.

Back in January, the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez announced that he was giving up writing because his heart just wasn't in it anymore.

E.M. Forster wrote five successful novels, and then at 35 what is arguably his greatest book A Passage to India. And then he stopped writing fiction altogether, though he lived on for another 46 years!

Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize with her first novel, The God of Small Things, "but since then she simply seems to have found better things to do than write fiction, and has become a vociferous activist in India".
It's almost taboo to say it, but perhaps writers just run out of things to say? Some keep going past that point, relying on reputation. Others accept the fact gracefully and move on to concentrate on ther areas of their lives.

I was intrigued to learn from Keenan that the term "writer's block" dates back only to the 1950's and has no direct translation in French or German!
Yet the concept has been around for some time. Writers, like other artists, have probably always struggled with their work, but the notion that an inability to write might be a specific affliction dates back to the romantic period when the whole notion of writing changed. Before then, it was understood to be the product of effort and discipline, much like tanning hides or embroidery. The romantics, however, recast it as a gift bestowed in moments of inspiration, which had the corollary effect of making the writer less an agent and more a receptacle of a kind of divine grace. The failure to write thus became strangely externalised and largely beyond a writer's control. Before then, he or she simply wasn't working hard enough.
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Related Posts:

see Index: On the Craft of Writing


sympozium said...

Truman Capote's first novel was "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and not "In Cold Blood"


bibliobibuli said...

thanks - amended!

sympozium said...

My pleasure! :-)

Greenbottle said...

oh dear... no wonder the likes of danielle fucking steele laughs all the way to the bank... all the real heroes just give up the fight...

Seth Gecko said...

A great article Sharon something that's always intrigued me-writers whos simply stop writing.I guess it is a combination of all the factors listed in the article.The sad truth is,creativity isn't a bottomless pit,the well will run dry at one point.After that I suppose all some writers strive for is a measure of consistency in their work,assuming of course they have the Trollope-like discipline to churn out words daily.To paraphrase Einstein,when inspiration runs dry,it's copious amounts of perspiration that keeps you in the game.Else,retirement to the countryside with your cat or protesting the building of the next dam is always an option!

Lydia Teh said...

Sharon, thanks for the warning. (Pls remember to put Impressionist in your bag now.)

Seth, the inspiration vs perspiration quote was Eddison's, not Einstein's.

The Visitor said...

Art is 60% instinct and 30% thought. the rest is luck.

that quote is mine.

The Visitor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
qaminante said...

I don't know quite what is meant by a "direct translation", a lot of things can't be translated directly, but I have seen "la panne de l'écrivain" which is pretty direct ("en panne" is used of a machine that has broken down). There is also "l'angoisse de la page blanche/le syndrôme de la page blanche", or anxiety before the blank page (though I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean the page remains blank for years), but you do see, rather than a word for block, the expression "un écrivain bloqué" and it seems not to be directly inspired by the English, cf (in French)
It's true, though, that I would be more likely to say that I was "en manque d'inspiration". Which I am, indeed, in any language!

Anonymous said...

"It's almost taboo to say it, but perhaps writers just run out of things to say?"

They never run out of things to say. Arundhati Roy is still an activist. I guess sometimes the hunger isn't there any more. Once you _had_ to write, it was either that or starve. You wrote because you wanted to be #1. You wanted to be a writer. After you become a best seller, what else is there ? you have all that money, and writing (especially good writing) is a sort of personal hell. You kinda have to be masochistic. After you make it, there's nothing else to make. And it's hard to be really masochistic with a lot of money. What does a warrior do after the war is over ?

Ron said...

Catherine Keenan's article was interesting and strengthens an idea I have that many writers write because of some inner conflict and once that's resolved, one way or another, 'the well does run dry'. Unfortunately once they taste some success and the writing no longer happens, then other psychological problems arise.

And,thanks to Ms Keenan, I now have a copy of Writer's Block by Zachary Leader which is mentioned in the article. Although the book was published in 1991, I found an unread, as new copy on (does anyone know of an Abebooks Anonymous group because it's an expensive addiction?).

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - yes, that's irony for you

seth - perspiration i think is more important than inspiration ... but i do think some writers don't have (or feel they don't have) enough in them to keep writing ... and there's no shame in that

visitor - i really don't know what proportion ... and i think we make our own luck (ask and the universe holds out its hands)

qaminante - thanks a lot for the translation - "je suis un ecrivain bloque" ... hmmm will drop these phrases into conversation really soon and see how i get on ... funny how the english version just sounds sad, but once you put the idea into french it acquires a certain cachet ...

anon - i know we'll go on differing about this ... but i don't think most writers write for money ... in any case almost all fiction writers these days have jobs outside writing ... perhaps it is more about the hunger

and ron - yes, i think she's right too about writing not being a necessity once an inner conflict is resolved

some writers though for sure suffer like hell when they find words don't come - hemingway, douglas adams ...

ron - if you want to set up the first chapter of "abebooks anonymous" - i'd like to be a member

enjoyed reading your blog ... found you initially from a link at librarything ... we apparently have books in common

(see folks, i told you it's a way to find new friends!)

... oh, and i've visited your beautiful corner of the world

Seth Gecko said...

The Gecko crawls corrected.Thanks Lydia!