A Novel Kind of Conformity

Francisco Goya: As Far back as his Grandfather, 1799
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Francisco Goya: As Far back as his Grandfather, 1799

What happens when a multi-million dollar author gets things wrong? Not much. Take the case of Haruki Murakami and his recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The idea behind the story is fascinating: What do you do when your closest friends eject you from the group without the slightest explanation? But the narrative is dull throughout and muddied by a half-hearted injection of Murakami-style weirdness–people with six fingers and psychic powers–that eventually contributes nothing to the very simple explanation of what actually happened. The book received mixed to poor reviews from embarrassed admirers and vindictive critics. Nevertheless, millions of copies were quickly sold worldwide and Murakami’s name remains on the list of likely Nobel winners.

How many times would Murakami have to get things wrong, badly wrong, before his fans and publishers stopped supporting him? Quite a few. Actually, no matter what Murakami writes, it’s almost unimaginable that his sales would ever fall so low that he would be considered unprofitable. So the Japanese novelist finds himself in the envious position (for an artist) of being free to take risks without the danger of much loss of income, or even prestige.

This is not the case with less successful authors. Novelists seeking to make a living from their work will obviously be in trouble if a publisher is not confident enough in their success to offer a decent advance; and if, once published, a book does not earn out its advance, publishers will be more hesitant next time, whatever the quality of the work on offer. Authors in this situation will think twice before going out on some adventurous limb. They will tend to give publishers what they want. Or try to.

The difficulties of the writer who is not yet well established have been compounded in recent years by the decision on the part of most large publishers to allow their sales staff a say in which novels get published and which don’t. At a recent conference in Oxford–entitled Literary Activism–editor Philip Langeskov described how on hearing his pitch of a new novel, sales teams would invariably ask, “But what other book is it like?” Only when a novel could be presented as having a reassuring resemblance to something already commercially successful was it likely to overcome the sales staff veto.

But even beyond financial questions I would argue that there is a growing resistance at every level to taking risks in novel writing, a tendency that is in line with the more general and ever increasing anxious desire to receive positive feedback, or at least not negative feedback, about almost everything we do, constantly and instantly. It is a situation that leads to something I will describe, perhaps paradoxically, as an intensification of conformity, people falling over themselves to be approved of.

How can I flesh out this intuition? At some point it slipped into the conversation that high sales are synonymous with achievement in writing. Perhaps copyright was partly responsible. A novelist’s work is to be paid for by a percentage of the sales achieved. This aligns the writer’s and the publisher’s interests and gets us used to thinking about books in terms of numbers sold. Add to that the now obligatory egalitarian view of society, which suggests that all reader responses are of equal worth, and you can easily fall into the habit of judging achievement in terms of the number of readers rather than their quality.

So, when praising a novel they like, critics will often give the impression, or perhaps seek to convince themselves, that the book is a huge commercial success, even when it isn’t. Such has been the case with Karl Ove Knausgaard. Apparently it isn’t imaginable that one can pronounce a work a masterpiece and accept that it doesn’t sell. Conversely, writer Kirsty Gunn recently spoke (again at the Literary Activism conference) of a revelatory moment when she, her husband, the editor David Graham, and others were celebrating another milestone in the extraordinary success of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which Graham was responsible for publishing in the UK. “Suddenly I had to leave the room,” Gunn said describing a moment of intense dismay. “I realized we had reached the point where we were judging books by their sales.”

Copyright has been with us two hundred years and more, but the consequent attention to sales numbers has been recently and dramatically intensified by electronic media and the immediate feedback it offers. Announce an article (like this one) on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc. Publish a novel and you can see at once where it stands on the Amazon sales ratings (I remember a publisher mailing me the link when my own novel Destiny amazingly crept into Amazon UK’s top twenty novels–for about an hour). Otherwise, you can track from day to day how many readers have reviewed it and how many stars they have given it. Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.

Franzen talks about this phenomenon in his recent novel Purity, suggesting that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” Hence the successful novelist is constantly encouraged to produce more of the same. “It’s incredible,” remarks Murakami in an interview, “I write a novel every three or four years, and people are waiting for it. I once interviewed John Irving, and he told me that reading a good book is a mainline. Once they are addicted, they’re always waiting.”

Well, is “addiction” what a literary writer should want in readers? And if a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same? In fact it would be far more plausible to ascribe the failure (aesthetic, but not commercial) of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and indeed Franzen’s Purity, not to the author’s willingness to take exciting risks with new material (Ishiguro’s bizarre The Buried Giant, for example), but rather to a tired, lackluster attempt to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein. Both writers have in the past taken intriguing distractions from their core business–Franzen with his idiosyncratic Kraus Project, Murakami with his engaging book on running–but when it comes to the novel, it’s back to the same old formula, though without perhaps the original inspiration or energy. Financial freedom is not psychological freedom.

Yet to create anything genuinely new writers need to risk failure, indeed to court failure, aesthetically and commercially, and to do it again and again throughout their lives, something not easy to square with the growing tendency to look on fiction writing as a regular career. “How have you survived as a writer twenty years and more?” a member of the public asked Kirsty Gunn after she had spoken of her absolute refusal to adapt her work to a publisher’s sense of what was marketable. “Day job,” she briskly replied.

Is it really possible, then, to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write, free from the political implications, free from your publisher’s eagerness for a book that looks like the last, or worse still, like whatever the latest fashion might be?

I doubt it, to be honest. Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances. Anyway, here, for what it’s worth, are two reflections drawn from my own experience:

1. So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks. Certainly I would never have written books like Europa or Teach Us to Sit Still without the stability of a university job. I knew the style of Europa, obsessive and unrelenting, and the content of Teach Us to Sit Still, detailed accounts of urinary nightmares, would turn many off. And they did; one prominent editor refused even to consider Teach Us, because “the word prostate makes me queasy.” Yet both books found enthusiastic audiences who were excited to read something different.

2. When you’re trying to write something seriously new, don’t show it to anybody until it’s finished, don’t talk about it, seek no feedback at all. Cultivate a quiet separateness. “Anything great and bold,” observed Robert Walser “must be brought about in secrecy and silence, or it perishes and falls away, and the fire that was awakened dies.”

Oddly enough these are conditions that are most likely to hold at the beginning of your writing career when you’re hardly expecting to make money and nobody is waiting for what you do. Which perhaps explains why the most adventurous novels–Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Thomas Pynchon’s V., Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping–are very often early works. Celebrity, it would appear, breeds conformity.