Why I Didn't Want
To Write Anymore
Apparently beneath the surface appearance of things everything is connected with everything else. Apparently the quicker you are in attaching verbal and mental labels to things the shallower your reality becomes. Marilynne Robinson, in an interview in The Guardian, says it was only after she had finished her PhD that she became aware of "the essential shallowness" of her education. She says: "I would try to write something, and I would think: I don't know if I really believe that. I don't know what this language means." This is often how I felt in academia, yet before I became ill I was probably going to become an academic.
Tim Parks, in Teach Us to Sit Still, writes: 'without words it's hard to refer to something that isn't here in front of us, now.' But even saying this, even stating the aim of dissociating oneself from words is still falling into the trap of them; as Parks says: ‘[t]he fact is, as soon as you start with words you're locked into a debate, forced to take a position with respect to others, confirming or rebutting what has been said before. nothing you say stands alone or is complete in the present: it has its roots in the past and pushes feelers into the future....words are never still. The opening of a sentence projects you forwards; the end demands you have the beginning in mind. One paragraph leads to another and this page to the next....thoughts run ahead of my fingers. Driven on...As words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it. When the words are gone, whether you...are young or old, man or woman, poor or rich isn't, in the silence, in the darkness, in the stillness, so important. Like ghosts, angels, gods, 'self', it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning.' Words are simply another manifestation of the addiction of 'doing', in other words, of looking outside ourselves for stimulus, sustenance, appreciation and understanding; of filling ourselves up.
Ultimately, all our requests are met with silence. Everything we did, were going to and will say - and everything we did not, do not and will not say - comes to the same thing. It is all one, and none of it matters, in both senses. This is one reason why I wanted to stop writing: the realisation that words were inadequate. The other reasons were that it was making me ill and I realised that I had written it for the wrong reasons. I also wanted to stop writing because I wished, naively or not, not to identify with anything anymore.
Mostly, I felt that writing had been shown, for me personally, to be pointless. This is because not only the ideological aspects of my novels, at least as I saw them (the attempt to explore what constitutes the self; the ‘god’ that may be inside us, art, love and the natural world and that in various ways we try to commune with; the way we may create our own reality and where our locus of power may be located; the question of where meaning resides in a world of seemingly endless signifiers; the notion of and search for equivalence, of cancelling out vs bringing into being, the mysterious ways in which destruction can engender creation and vice versa; the possibly simultaneous nature of time, freewill and causation; and how salvation and redemption might play out in ordinary lives) but the very heart of them - the aspects I see as the ‘brave’ things in my novels, the things that gave them substance and value and heart: my attempt to depict debasement, inhumanity, radical outsiders, mental illness, suppressed, unspeakable, dysfunctional and taboo child and female sexuality, to depict (yes - in this age of staunchly militant feminism as keen to oust the 'unworthy' and 'disloyal' as arch Communism ever was) the way in which a woman can be destroyed, can be rent asunder by forces largely male or patriarchal but also female and just as deadly; forces which then become internalised - the very heart of my novels, and the spirit in which they were written and I hoped they would be read, which was that of one soul reaching out to another in spite of great distance, from a cusp, a unfreqeuented extremity, an abyss that seemed, at least at the time, to be both depth- and hopeless, in the desperate hope that there was some ‘good’ somewhere; some salvation; written in utter honesty, utter ugliness, utter rawness, in an all-out, unconcealed bid for communion; in prostration, complete self surrender; written in case it was possible to touch something great or at least greater than what appeared all around me; written with blazing courage that rose up again and again and again; - well, all that I feel, was largely ignored. As was guessed, or known, I drew upon my own life to source both the ideas and struggles found in my novels, and bring them to light. And as an intensely vulnerable and a profoundly reserved person this was daring on a grand scale motivated by a desire to tell whole, utter, felt and particular truths, most which I believed had been shied away from in contemporary fiction and desperately needed.
It was as if the world was blind to me - or deaf, I suppose. There were a few glowing reviews, many measured, and a fair number that were scurrilous. None dared to even mention the more taboo aspects of my subject matter; didn’t even have the balls to talk about it here, in their review, where there were no ramifications for them whatsoever - whereas the writer has already put themselves and work (life, in other words) on the line in order to bring this material to the public’s attention; the reviewer cannot even acknowledge (or could it be doesn’t so much as see?) their attempt. Instead, many critics were hell bent on savaging the novels as thoroughly as hounds dismember a fox (not for nothing is the term ‘hatchet job’ used). Ignoring a plethora of rewarding avenues of enquiry they chose to focus on virtually anything else: the fact that I deployed elements of magical realism in a love scene, which were ridiculed as 'Disney-esque’; the 'fact' that my novel was rife with anachronisms (a novel that was set absolutely as I researched - but also remembered - the 1980s; which I lived through; even though the point was utterly irrelevant, since the novel was quite clearly located in an indeterminate time and indeterminate place). Another critic, this time American, pilloried sentiments worthy of 'greeting-cards; another’s snide review smugly concluded that my novel was 'not all it's cracked up to be.' Possibly the most perverse, concentrated review and in many ways admirable for the fact that it managed to magic faults out of thin air, took issue with the fact that my protagonist experienced a city in a romantic way; judging by the vitriol, the critic in question viewed this as a personal affront and transgression of astronomical proportions; as if a place should and could only be experienced in one particular way to the exclusion of all others. The hubris of this last assertion never ceased to amaze me, nor the fact that an obviously intelligent person failed to distinguish for the entirety of a quite lengthy review, between a writer and their creation, author and protagonist (believe me, if I had portrayed my own feelings about the city, it would be quite a different picture); her claims that I was 'anti-feminist' and 'conservative' (this denigration itself from a so-called feminist - but there was no artistic solidarity to be found here, no supportive sisterhood; the critic in question not only threw me to the dogs but turned on me herself), based, I am assuming, on the fate of my character: she has a brain tumour and is in love with a man she met when she was young. This, as far as I can tell, is the full extent of my ‘conservative’ and ‘anti-feminist’ ways, though even then neither term makes sense in the context of my novel and are both quite mystifying to me - particularly as I was attempting to dramatise, if anything, the exact opposite: a woman passing beyond all normal realms of behaviour and definition imposed by her career, society, men, other women, and finally even her own body, to ultimately find - or fail to find - a radically self-delimited identity that lies in some no-man’s land beyond with an attendant freedom that accompanies the death of self; a self not even subject to time in the normal sense anymore. The only motive for the relentless onslaught that constituted this particular review was that this critic seems to have taken issue (she took issue with everything, but there was a trigger, from what I can tell) with the fact that I was ‘still smarting' from superficial reviews of my first novel, and so decided this was reason to give me a perversely ‘superficial’ reading of my second: the message was: 'man down over here, ripe for a good kicking'. Oh - that and the fact that in order to describe some of my favourite writers I used the (reprehensible) term 'spiritual greatness' somewhere on this website because I struggled to describe their metaphysical style of writing.
Goodness, I just did not sign up for all this. It was just too much! It was laughable even! Where did it all come from? While I understand some criticism is par for the course if you are a published (and moderately widely reviewed) novelist, the perversely critical agenda, scorn and downright meanness of many of the responses blind-sided me. A murderer would not be so disdained or reviled, I thought; even if I stopped writing that would not be enough for these people. I don’t know what they want me to do or think of myself; how low could I debase myself in order for them to be satisfied? When I thought about this, the answer was clear: there was no limit, no depth, no place or position I could adopt that would tally with their estimation of me. Should a novelist - particularly one who has not set out to offend, but rather the opposite, to touch people, to enliven, to create beauty; more than that - not even a particularly bad novelist - be this abused? Not even the writer of the trashiest chic lit or gore fest gets such treatment. They’re left happily alone. But a writer of ‘literary fiction’? It’s shooting season and they’re ripe to be blasted. And it was abuse. It’s just as a culture we are used to it happening and writers who are particularly lambasted or reviled have no recourse to reply or defend themselves. And no one else is going to do it; no agent; no fellow writer; no friend. It is abuse which the abuser enjoys - sometimes revels in; it is often personal, it is shameful, it is cowardly, it is often short-sighted, conceited, idiotic, malicious and deeply harmful.
So this was my experience with reviewers. Coupled with the fact that I found most interviewers lazy, uninterested, cut most of what I said and painted a skewed picture of me; that both prize-giving committees, the so-called literary elite, and the general public, at least judging by sales of my books, largely ignored me, I just did not see much point continuing to write. I was just a novelist - not even a particularly one; I wasn't a mass-murderer. I wasn’t Osama Bin Laden, Harvey Weinstein or even Boris Johnson, and yet I was being treated like them. I did not sign up for this assault. From which, of course, there is never any defence, because the curious (one of the curious) things about being a writer is that you can never defend yourself; once you have written your work, you are mute (even writing this 'defence' here is terrible 'form'). I was just a normal person who had come through a lot and managed to write three books against the odds; I’d just left a fundamentalist religion, come through a nervous breakdown, plunged promptly into several years of illness and when I could use my mind again, my arms in slings, I began writing using speech recognition software because it looked like there was nothing else I would be able to do in life. I continued to write for the next few years as my health improved, though periodically sent me into a spiral of terror when I randomly lost the use of various limbs and motor functions, eking a living on government benefits in rundown London bedsits, holding on, through thick and thin (mostly thin to be honest) to the slight but unquenchable belief that something extraordinary was coming through me; that this thing would speak to others, and that what was inside the books would cut through divisions and speak something that resonated and rose up and empowered and gave courage. Instead I was knocked down, spat upon, kicked, set alight until I was ashes and then urinated upon. If someone asked me what publication was like as a whole, this is how I would answer, because it is the voices of the abuse that linger. It is a destruction that lasts longer than physical injury and death and quite possibly never heals at all.
I am not the only woman writer that other female (and male) writers have turned against. In “A Life’s Work” and “Aftermath” Rachel Cusk exposed more of herself than most will ever do, even to their closest and most trusted confidant. Upon finishing both memoirs I felt that something important, brave and honest had been created. Brave and honest, above everything else, are what I believe a writer should be (I don’t mean 'honest' in the sense of realism, but in the sense of conveying something that is perhaps taboo or not talked about but very much needs to be). I felt like crying, punching the air as I read because she was liberating so many by writing so freely - women and men. And it wasn’t as if she was absolving herself of guilt as she went; she exposed her flaws utterly, her goal, apparently, to ‘simply’ and selflessly talk about her experience. Cusk calls D. H. Lawrence her mentor, siding with his instinct against propriety, despite the cost to herself - and to others. And it is perhaps this latter aspect that I partially understand caused the furore. If I had to pick my three favourite authors of the first half of the twentieth century, Lawrence would be one. I could not believe that ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was vilified because while reading I saw instantly the importance and nobility of Lawrence’s intention, to say nothing of his artistry and staggering ability to conjure such potent atmosphere and eroticism. I take comfort, like Cusk, that what I consider to be great writers (yes, writers of ’spiritual greatness’!) have always been persecuted for ‘truth’ telling.
All of this led me to the realisation that I was writing for the wrong reason, however: others’ opinion should not mean a thing to me. If the voice, the frequency inside was strong enough, that was all I should need. This is of course, a tough, and very pure act to follow, because writing by its very nature, is reciprocal, to be shared. There are stories of writers writing purely for the love of it (Marilynne Robinson apparently wrote Housekeeping then put it away in a drawer). I’d hoped my writing would speak to people though; in an intensely isolated existence I had wanted some sort of communion. “Wanting people to like you corrupts your writing,” Cusk said in an interview. But even she fell foul of some desire: ‘I wanted to speak to intelligent women,’ she confessed. She presumably thought, or hoped, that amongst the supposedly truth-seeking and speaking literary establishment she could count on being heard. Not so; ‘her streak of valour was largely lost on critics in Britain,’ Judith Thurman noted in an article that appeared in The New Yorker. The same writer observes ‘[t]he memoirs’ merits as literature took a back seat, in reviews, to personal attacks on the author…’ though this itself should not be that surprising, given that ‘[b]ook reviewing can be a blood sport in the U.K.’ I myself checked to see if reviews of my second novel (for some reason it was this that attracted the most vitriol) had made the Hatchet Job of the Year award; but it was Camilla Long’s disembowelling of Cusk’s “Aftermath” that did. In that review there was the weirdly personal tone I’d come to know all too well (what place do the epithets “brittle…dominatrix”; “[b]izarre” and “whinnying” have in a review of a piece of literature?), the blows ‘below the belt’, the voice of a kind of stupidity that smacks of shallow point scoring, jokes at another’s expense and snide character assassination; the same assumptions, projections, culminating in a public, and ineradicable (the internet makes sure of that) tarring and feathering in a public arena.
Cusk was annihilated following ‘Aftermath’, ‘depleted to the point of not being able to create anything.” I simply decided not to write anymore, unless I was sure I did not care what another soul thought. And that might never happen. And if it did, why show another soul what I wrote? I am so glad I wrote my novels in a vacuum, without any outside praise or vilification, because they remain uncontaminated; true to the inner voice I heard and exactly what I wanted to say. I wrote for an ideal reader, one that I hoped would see the extraordinary amongst the weaknesses (my three published novels are only the second, third and fourth that I wrote; I was a beginner; I had not been taught how to write; I had no readers and no guides, except for those that lived long before me). And there were some generous and empathetic listeners, who even if they did not always understand what I was trying to do, gave credit where it was due and had no agenda, no spite, no rancour.
To say goodbye to writing is to say goodbye to both types of readers (I never found my ideal one and maybe it’s best I never knew that would happen when I was writing); it’s also saying goodbye to the irritation with myself for conforming to some degree, with the ‘voice’ of contemporary fiction - and simultaneously opening myself to the possibility that though I never quite found my own voice (only in passages, in snatches); the voice that would have been with me if I had never been tampered with or moulded at all. And it’s to live by my belief that if I have nothing to say I shouldn’t try and say it, and after the third novel I had no more. I believe 90% of writers also have nothing to say but either do or don’t realise it (mostly the latter). If you’re ‘a writer’ you have to try and say something – anything – over and over. Well there’ve been too many words in the world. What this world needs now isn’t more, but less; it needs silence. Or at least quiet. I began by saying that words are simply another manifestation of the addiction of 'doing', of looking for ourselves, accumulating and imposing ourselves upon the world. They are the means by which we think, constitute our identity, and imagine our world. They can thus be our tormentors or our liberators. For most of us, they are the former. The awful thing about words is that they keep leading on, to more of themselves. Just as my novels led on to the critics’ reviews; which led on to years of painful thoughts; which led on to me writing this ‘goodbye’ to writing; which, if I ever write anything again, will possibly be referred to, in mocking or sympathetic or uncomprehending tones; to which I in turn will want to respond. To speak and to write is to continually re-create ourselves and impose ourselves upon the world. I think again of Cusk’s radical auto-fictional project and how her protagonist barely speaks or confides a thought. She does describe her world however. I began my first novel describing a world: ‘In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time.’ My intention is to go back to that emptiness now, as if I had never left it.
Things budding writers should know about writing a 'successful' novel:
If you write a successful novel some people will like it and it's likely that some people will hate it, even if it's various readers posting their comments on Amazon or Goodreads. I wrote a semi-successful novel and don't think it sold very well, but these days that's apparently not unusual. In the process of being published I learnt some things which I wish someone had told me, though I'm not sure I would have believed them or it would have made any difference:
1) Success is never un-qualified, with it usually comes criticism and unless you have very thick skin this can be endlessly disturbing; i.e. you go on being disturbed by it, like you would by a pain in your side or your back or your foot, for perhaps the rest of your life.
2) Funnily enough, the very fact that you have written a book will render you unable to defend it or to explain it because to do so would be in bad taste.
3) Your work may be praised by people who love other novels that you don't, in which case, the praise does not mean a lot.
4) Your work will possibly be both praised and vilified, in a contradictory way, to a laughable extent, until one day, after months of feeling devastated, then elated, then devastated, then elated, you wake up feeling simply empty, finally realising that none of it means anything at all. (Except that you don't; the criticism will far outweigh the praise in your mind)
5) The book will not change your life, except possibly financially. Your life, be it easy or difficult, will still essentially be the same afterwards. In fact 'fame' and success can magnify inner pains and insecurities, which, in contrast to their starriness, suddenly appear in sharp relief.
6) The book will fade astonishingly quickly and while you
are still drawing breath after finishing the marathon that nearly killed you, will be asked what you are working on next.
So if you have written the 'successful' novel for the sake of writing a successful novel, there may well be some hidden aspects of the outcome you did not suspect. The successful novel may also prove to be a curse; a mill stone around your neck. If, however, you wrote not to write a successful novel but simply because you wanted to it will have been worthwhile, whatever the outcome.