Sunday 12 June 2022

Careers Syndromes Part Four: Writers

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

You write a stunning first novel – the rest of your work never comes close. Here are some more syndromes to avoid – such as overstaying your welcome and biting the hand that feeds you.

As it become less and less possible to make any money from writing (magazines and newspapers halve their rates or fold), more and more creative-writing courses spring up, promising students that they can make huge amounts if they hit the jackpot. (Courses taught students to write short stories for decades after the magazines that published the stories folded. The NUJ suggests training, corporate reports and after-dinner speaking as alternative careers or side gigs. Agents, and info on magazines that publish freelance stories and articles, can be found in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.)

"They constantly encourage their students toward a belief in a market that doesn't exist for beginning writers." Another frequently voiced criticism: "The school attempts to indoctrinate its students with a universally palatable style geared strictly to the closest farm and garden market. They don't expect, or accept, experimental work. Forty years ago the sort of bland writing they encourage might have found a home in the mass circulation family magazines—I doubt if it would today." (From Jessica Mitford's piece on the Famous Writers correspondence school in the Atlantic)

His later novels paled in comparison to his innovative early work. (Martin Edwards)

You were wildly fashionable when young, then become utterly dated. Just when you’re dying/dead, fashion swings your way again.

You make your name with a gritty, realist working-class first book, go sharply out of fashion and spend the rest of your life writing alt.future or alt.history which nobody reads. 

If you refer jokingly to "my epic novel", you will never write a novel. Don't tell anybody what you're up to – have some ideas, make notes, write a synopsis divided into chapters. Write a first draft, then knock it into shape.

Writers of the 1930s usually had private incomes. Publishing was known as “the gentleman’s profession” – salaries were low because staff were assumed not to need the money. This attitude persisted in the book world when I was “determined to break into publishing” in the 1970s. And how many novelists have day jobs, supportive partners or rich husbands?

You have an identity given to you by a group or milieu in your own country – you are a monstre sacré, an enfant terrible, a controversialist, a star, an eccentric, a “character”. But circumstances dictate that you have to go and live somewhere like Toronto, where nobody knows or cares about you. (This happened to Percy Wyndham Lewis.) 

Hilde Spiel, a writer well-known in Austria in the 1930s, took refuge in Wimbledon during the war. Her previous success and fame cut no ice, and nobody invited her into their home. (The Love-charm of Bombs, Lara Feigel)

Peter Carey and his wife moved to America from Australia and to start with she made it and he didn’t. He became furious, grumpy, peevish and childishly jealous

A colleague – young, pretty, blonde – came from a wealthy family. She went to live in Georgia in the former Soviet Union for a year, had an affair with a local warlord, endured power cuts in freezing temperatures, had her room filled with red roses by an admirer, came home and wrote about it (Stories I Stole from Georgia, Wendell Steavenson), and got writing jobs on the back of the book’s success. But she had the money – she could afford to take a year off living in Georgia. We couldn’t throw up our jobs, we’d never get them back. And if we went to Georgia we’d have to work there – probably doing something low-paid. We’d have no time or energy for adventures. And being older and brunette, probably nobody would have fallen in love with us. But the reading public has no idea that the playing-field is not level. 

Likewise, if you're backed by a magazine you can travel extensively, carry out in-depth interviews or even go undercover, and come up with an excellent article or book. What's more, the magazine's name opens doors. When you're on your own you can't afford to earn nothing while paying for your own food and travel.

Chris Kraus wrote a successful piece of faction called I Love Dick, about her crush on a writer. Her front job was “documentary film-maker”, but she actually lived on the rents from several slum properties. 

People successful in other fields write novels, or have them ghost-written (Lynne Truss, Stephen Fry, Ben Elton, Richard Osman, Katie Price). The novel sells the columns which sell the novel which sells the stand-up which sells the TV sofa appearances which sell the game shows which sell the reality TV gigs… 

Packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit
(Steven Poole, New Statesman, 2012)  

You write a book hoping it’ll be picked up as a TV series. In Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s day you wrote a novel to get into parliament. Now your Twitter feed becomes a book (Very British Problems, Highgate Mums). In fact you get the public to write it for you. 

Conversely, your Twitter feed is much better than your book because Twitter confines you to 280-word paragraphs and there's no room for over-long sentences, leaden similes, well-worn clichés, mixed metaphors or confused syntax.

You spend your early life bicycling to left-wing meetings and writing a novel in a bedsit. You end up working for Readers Digest or as an education officer in the RAF with a wife and two children, and never refer to your past. 

Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers wanted to return to Oxford and be an academic. She gave up detective stories and instead penned religious radio plays and a translation of Dante. But she had made her money and could do what she liked. She gained the collegiate, academic lifestyle, and probably got away from her husband. She never finished her life of Wilkie Collins. (Her Dante may be rather good.)

Penelope Fitzgerald, Betty Macdonald and Alida Baxter wrote wonderful books based on their lives (they must have kept diaries). When they’d run out of “life” and married happily (Betty and Alida), they wrote children’s books. Some turn to historical novels, science fiction or alt.history.

Or family sagas, like Elizabeth Jane Howard. She lived on until her early years were a historical period... And she had a good memory. 

Writers want to – or are advised to - write “timeless classics” that will go on selling copies. (In fact, "timeless" is code for "goes on selling".) They don’t want to be “dated” or “parochial”. Likewise novice writers are advised to be bland and generic, to write about feelings and “life-changing events”, not décor and slang and current phenomena. (Novice writers – turn this advice on its head.)

In their youth Ruby M. Ayres, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland wrote about the current social scene. Unfortunately such books “date” quickly, and as you age you lose touch. They moved on to historical romances set in an imaginary “Regency” world – you can churn them out and earn lots of money. Sadly their early books are out of print and hard to find. 

You may become too successful and lose touch with ordinary life, and publishers no longer dare edit or cut your text. No wonder the early work is the best.

Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie always moved with the times and remained fascinated by the contemporary scene. Their attempts at trendy 60s slang may be off-beam, but at this distance they appear merely quaint.

Tobias Smollett, author of episodic novel Humphrey Clinker, alienated most people he came across by his rudeness and unreasonable behaviour. He wasted his life trying to find backers for his historical drama The Regicide, and being furious with the people who let him down yet again. 

Julian McLaren Ross would get a book accepted by a publisher but then test the relationship to destruction by badgering, moaning, making conditions, complaining that the book was not displayed in WH Smith. He wore out his welcome and bit the hand that fed him. He bragged and didn’t notice that people weren’t impressed. He displayed a suite of affectations that didn’t go down as well as he imagined they did. He was genuinely talented and made art out of his life, but he was also vain, exhibitionist, entitled, only superficially charming. He sponged off friends, wrote begging letters. His new best friend became his new worst enemy, successively. 

A lifestyle that he was to pursue with ever-diminishing returns, for the next 20 years. (Guardian, 2008)

But McLaren Ross wrote like a dream and had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular literature. His journalism is far better than his fiction, and it’s a real shame that he never wrote his history of the thriller. Apart from the alcoholism, what made him like this? He was very beautiful when young and probably Anglo-Indian. He grew up in a well-off family in the south of France, then dissipated his talent in the pubs of London's Fitzrovia.

Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian the Seventh, become a Catholic, possibly as a means of climbing the social ladder. His attempt to become a priest failed. He was obsessed with getting compensation, grants, patronage, but ended up on a boat in Venice, living off rich friends – or if they weren’t around, Maggi soup cubes. Read about his life in The Quest for Corvo, by A.J.A. Symons.

The story began to repeat itself: Corvo making a friend, leeching money off said friend, then, feeling somehow betrayed, turning against the friend. (Amazon reviewer)

Rolfe was a failed painter, photographer, musician and priest before becoming a writer. He experienced his troubles and injustices, actual, threatened or imagined, as more relentless, taxing and dramatic than those of other people... In Hadrian the Seventh he exacts his revenge by appointing himself as Pope and slandering all his enemies. (Amazon reviewer, who adds that Rolfe stuck to the spellings "publick" and "Zyprus", even if it meant the book deal was cancelled.)

In his memoir Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb, top brass at Knopf from 1963 to 1987, wrote a little about working with Roald Dahl: His behaviour to the staff there was so demanding and rude that no one wanted to work with him, and in any case there was no one there who was elevated enough for him to deign to deal with. Roald was a tremendous charmer... but his behaviour at Knopf grew more and more erratic and churlish. Secretaries were treated like servants, tantrums were thrown both in person and in letters, and when Bob Bernstein, as head of Random House, didn’t accede to his immoderate and provocative financial demands, we sensed anti-Semitic undertones in his angry response. (Emily Temple on Dahl kept writing to the office demanding that they supply him with a particular type of pencil. It was the last straw. Dahl used to play cards with bigwigs in Washington and his daughter said it had spoiled him for the rest of his life.) 

When a young author begins his or her career with an idealising account of some older artist, then suspect tacit self portraiture and forward planning... In retrospect, Michael Houellebecq's essay (on H.P. Lovecraft) reads like a hidden manifesto for his own career. (Kevin Jackson, Sunday Times, 2006)

They lived in Budapest, Brussels and Paris, where Emma studied music without success. (Wikipedia on the Scarlet Pimpernel's creator Baroness Orczy)

In the 1920s, psychologist William Moulton Marston barely held any appointment longer than a year, and, with each move, he climbed another step down the academic ladder. (He lived with a wife and a girlfriend and four children, two by each. But he invented Wonder Woman.)

You finally produce the brick-sized great American novel after 40 years, it’s reviewed, it’s forgotten, you die: These long-anticipated literary mysteries never end in anything very significant — one thinks of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, falling totally flat after decades of sycophantic pre-publicity. (Spectator 2009)

PD James, grande dame of crime fiction, has died at the age of 94. I think Shroud for a Nightingale was the best of her books – they got longer, and more diffuse, and more pretentious as she went on. (Moira Redmond on PD James. And more conservative, and more unlikely, and further behind the times.)

The bourgeoisie of the keyboard-battering classes know that the pyramid narrows sharply once you get to your forties. (Andrew Marr in My Trade. That would mean it was no longer a pyramid, but who’s counting?)

She soon dissociated herself from those writers whom she met, the faded remnants of the late-Victorian literary life. (Alison Light, Mrs Woolf and the Servants)

Arthur Machen’s star... sank slowly back toward the horizon line of relative obscurity, then followed an irregularly wavelike course throughout his later life (and afterlife), ascending and again declining at periodic intervals. (Paris Review)

Willard Wright was the older brother of one of America’s first abstract artists, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and the two were in constant competition to gain renown for themselves as the intellectual titans they felt themselves to be. Their wildly indulgent parents had raised them to assume the world was theirs for the taking. Stanton’s path to success was modern art; Willard’s was to be in literature and journalism... Willard was also a drinker, a [sponger], and a womanizer of epic proportions. It became harder and harder for him to hold down a job, freelance writing kept him in genteel poverty, and his occasional use of marijuana and opium became a problem he couldn’t control. (So he turned himself into mystery writer S.S. Van Dine and made a fortune.

In all of mystery, no major writer has fallen from grace as completely as S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance. (

By then, the Golden Age was a distant memory, and [Edmund] Crispin’s touch had deserted him. (Martin Edwards. Somebody says that drink had a lot to do with it. Someone else adds, “Yes, but his last and long-awaited book is brilliant.” I found it unreadable.)

The thing about Lawrence Durrell is that nobody reads him now, nobody has even really heard of him any more, whereas Gerald, his younger brother whom he always patronised, has become a classic of humorous writing about people, animals etc, and is a jolly good writer anyway. (JL)

Washed up on the beach of literary fashion by a tide that would never return. (The Times Literary Supplement on Angus Wilson, 2011. Try his short story collection The Wrong Set.)


A homeless man in New York City was going to write a verbatim novel about his milieu – many professional writers supported him – he carried the manuscript about with him for years. When he died it was found that he’d only ever written one chapter about tomatoes, repeated over and over again. 

Joseph Mitchell wrote some brilliant New Yorker pieces about New York characters. The last one was about that drifter Joe Gould who claimed to be writing an epic oral history of the city (and never did). After it was published, Mitchell never published anything else. But he always had a story to tell about what he was working on. For 32 years “he went to the office every day; fellow staffers said they could hear him typing, he met annually with editors to describe what he was working on". (London Review of Books. He hinted that he had absorbed Gould, and Gould had absorbed him. Thirty-two years.)

Truman Capote never wrote anything after In Cold Blood and a similar relationship with the killers. He wrote a roman à clef about his rich friends and supporters and they never forgave him.

Toby Young was hired by Vanity Fair magazine in New York, and wrote about the experience in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. He was given an office in a converted cupboard – and had to share it with another writer. The editor rejected most of his story ideas (which tended to start "Wouldn't it be funny if I..."). He was rude to the celebrities he was sent to interview and failed to learn that in the US that means the audience is now over. It took him some time to work out that whoever he had been in the UK, here he was a nonentity. The book is very funny.

Thinking of writing your memoirs? Read this first.

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