From times immemorial up to the present day, people from all walks of life have wanted to become writers. Fortunately for themselves and the world at large, some have thought better of it. There’s probably a limit to the number of writers humanity can hold, and one may argue that it’s pretty full right now.
If the writing bug has bitten you, or if your child, parent, or pet wishes to embark on a writing career, here are five novels that may give you/them pause for thought.
Common plot elements include: blockages and blankness, the wilful destruction of written material, soul-searching and self-pity, dreams of success and delusions of grandeur, pettiness and envy, rejection and failure. Nothing but the commonplaces of the writer’s life.
With varying degrees of self-importance—the trait is always present—the writers in these novels suffer for or from their art, or just suffer. The thing to reflect upon is that no masterpieces ever result from all this pain.
It’s safe to say that the novels were more or less based on personal experience. Don’t let yourself be swayed by the fact that some of the authors were/are doing pretty well, the one still alive being filthy rich. They just got lucky. And, in any case, neither money nor Nobel prizes can buy you happiness.
1. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
In order to escape a life of servitude to the ‘money-god’, Orwell’s alter ego Gordon Comstock has given up his comfortable job as advertising copywriter. He hopes that his current position as badly-paid bookseller’s assistant will allow him to forge a career in poetry.
He has already published one slim collection that nobody wants to read, and for two years has been working on a long poem, London Pleasures, the end to which is nowhere in sight. In his clearer moments, he knows he’ll never finish it.
Gordon not only recognizes, but obsesses, about the power of the god he’s rejecting. He believes that money writes books and money sells them. It also facilitates every good thing and causes all misfortunes. And, tragedy of tragedies, money’s what makes his girlfriend—otherwise the perfect doormat—refuse to sleep with him without contraception.
Self-centred and self-pitying, Gordon nevertheless knows that many people are worse off than him. The source of his misery lies in the need to maintain certain middle-class standards, hated but intimately connected with his self-respect. The aspidistra, a particularly hard-to-kill houseplant, stands for that hard-to-get-rid-of respectability.
But when an unexpected payment for one of his poems arrives in the wake of many refusals, everything changes. A night of drunken spending sets him on a downward path that ends with him getting a real taste of poverty.
2. Misery by Stephen King
Fame has its risks, even for writers. Crazy fans, for instance, can happen to anyone who is famous enough to have fans in the first place. Novelist Paul Sheldon is one of these lucky people. Paul writes two kinds of novels, which he himself labels as bestsellers and ‘good ones’. Needless to say he only writes the former, which he hates, to subsidise the latter.
Having finished his new ‘good’ novel, he goes for a champagne-sodden drive, manuscript in tow. A snowstorm and a crash later, he wakes up with his legs shattered in the secluded home of Annie Wilkes. She is his biggest fan and a homicidal maniac. She will let Paul live to regret having killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain, the heroine of the romances that made him rich and famous.
Annie doesn’t like his Misery-free manuscript, of which there is no copy—and which, being paper, easily burns. She wishes Misery un-dead, and forces Paul to do what no writer should: bring back to life a character he hates.
He soon finds himself writing under pressure and in dire circumstances. A self-proclaimed Scheherazade—with an inflated ego—his life depends on his storytelling. The fact that, as he puts it himself, ‘writers remember everything, especially the hurts’ will work both for and against him.
3. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
This is the story of two writers, one an idealistic failure, the other an unhappy success. Von Humboldt Fleisher is that extra-suffering type of writer: a poet. A has-been poet to boot. In fact, he’s a recently dead poet at the time of the story. He comes alive in the reminiscences of Charlie Citrine, his former protégé, who has built a successful and lucrative writing career.
A believer in the artist’s calling to elevate society, Humboldt himself showed great promise in his early days, when he published an acclaimed book of ballads. Erudite and uncompromising, he was a great romantic figure for young writers to embrace.
Citrine, then a starry-eyed student, quickly became a disciple and friend. Later he made his name (and money) with a Broadway hit starring a character based on Humboldt. The relationship fell apart as a result. Struggling to remain true to his ideals, Humboldt descended into poverty and paranoia and died an obscure death.
Now in his middle-age, Citrine finds himself in a deep spiritual crisis, haunted by the figure of his old mentor. Once ambitious, now he finds his own success pointless and has lost confidence in his writing, which he has practically given up. Nor is his private life thriving, what with a costly divorce, a demanding young girlfriend, and an interfering gangster dogging his every step. But Humboldt’s legacy may lead him to some sort of salvation.
4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
Contrast lies at the heart of this story. Failing to meet the requirements of the literary market, novelist Edwin Reardon is going down in the world. His friend and foil, the journalist Jasper Milvain, is on the rise.
A writer of talent though not genius, Reardon has produced several good works, moderately praised but soon forgotten. Pushed by his young wife’s ambition, he strives to succeed in Victorian London’s literary world. But he lacks the right connections and proves unfit to write for a popular market.
A careful, principled writer, Reardon needs to work in his own time. Not being able to do so proves his undoing. There’s no better way to kill creativity than by forcing it, and words won’t flow from his pen without considerable effort. He nevertheless writes on a strict schedule. The mediocre book he produces in this laboured way fails and so does his marriage. On top of it all, his health begins to deteriorate.
While Reardon’s life is falling apart, Milvain diligently finds his way to success. A self-described man of his times, he studies his trade, meets the right people, gives up the wrong ones, and makes it without overstraining himself.
The idealistic and rather brilliant Harold Biffen, another of Reardon’s friends, dedicates himself body and soul to writing an experimental novel while living in the direst poverty. He even risks his life to save the manuscript from a fire. When published, the book is met with utter contempt.
5. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
This Norwegian classic tells of the wanderings of a starving writer through the streets of Kristiania (Oslo) and of his encounters, ruminations, monologues, fantasises, hallucinations …
The lonely, unnamed young man barely survives on the occasional piece he sells to a newspaper. He aims absurdly high—at one time deciding to write an exhaustive treatise on philosophical cognition—but achieves little. The self-defeating streak in his make-up leads him to choose difficult topics that won’t sell.
When inspiration visits him one early morning, he writes page after page in a happy frenzy, barely awake. Exalted with his own powers, he convinces himself that his poverty is at an end. But the money he gets for the piece doesn’t last, and such moments fail to occur again. As his body grows week, his ability to write declines.
Paper and pencil in his pocket, he spends most of his time roaming through the city, taking in a myriad of details and getting hungrier and hungrier. He stops to write in parks and cemeteries, but gets easily distracted or lost in contemplation. When sensitised by hunger, his feverish mind is beset by a whirlwind of impressions, often surreal and sometimes frightening.
He experiences everything with startling intensity. One time, looking down at his shoes, he discerns expressions, sees them as a living part of himself, and tears up as if he had encountered a long lost friend. The extremes of hunger lead him to freakish acts, such as biting his own finger and gnawing doglike on a bone.
His mental and physical decline isolates him from others and drains his creative powers. In his own words (the Sverre Lyngstand translation): ‘a swarm of tiny vermin had forced its way inside me and hollowed me out’.