If you want to be an author, the worst thing you can do is get published

The wholesale colonisation of one's day by auxiliary activities that haven’t a whit to do with the contemplative, hermetical job of a novelist, is now the norm for most professional writers.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Parents whose offspring aspire to artistic careers find themselves in the invidious position of either trying to crush their children’s hopes or encouraging a pursuit with poor prospects that will probably pay beans. Had I a seven-year-old who declared that she wanted to be a writer, as I did at that age, I worry that I might spontaneously exclaim, “Are you crazy?”

Make no mistake, I’ve led a great life—yet one that, fiscally anyway, may be decreasingly on offer for young writers. Advances are down. Typically for fiction these days, my latest novel has sold roughly two (for the author, less lucrative) e-books for every hardback. Publishers are more impatient than ever—and they were never patient—with a first novel that doesn’t make a splash.

Besides, your talents are equally endangered when a book does make a splash. If you really want to write, the last thing you want to be is a success. Now that every village in the United Kingdom has its own literary festival, I could credibly spend my entire year, every year, flitting from Swindon to Peterborough to Aberdeen, jawing interminably about what I’ve already written—at the modest price of scalding self-disgust.

For novelists, of course, acceptance of an uncertain income has always been part of the package. I was fortunate to be raised in an intellectual household that didn’t equate achievement with making pots of money. While I was plowing through my first several manuscripts, the need to generate at least survival income was a mild motivation, although whatever avarice drove me was purely a greed for the financing of yet more books. After all, if what you really want is to get rich, instead of writing fiction you’re better off hitting the newsagent for lottery tickets.

I’ve now tasted both extremes of the literary lifestyle: scrimping obscurity and your basic day in the sun. I’ve had novels sink like stones; I’ve had best-sellers. Yet with the exception of a few select luminaries whose reputations are assured, in this business you’re only as good as your last book. My livelihood started out shaky; it is still shaky.

Or it feels that way, which is the only explanation for the otherwise baffling and not altogether pleasant transformation of my work life ever since my seventh novel,We Need to Talk About Kevin, hit a social nerve and was eventually developed into a feature film. True, publishers routinely supplement their meager publicity budgets with free authorial self-promotion. But the wholesale colonization of my diary by auxiliary activities that haven’t a whit to do with the ostensibly contemplative, hermetical job of a novelist cannot be laid at the feet of poor HarperCollins. A frenzied calendar is my fault. It is the natural consequence of a profound insecurity that, during a dozen long years when I lived a hair’s breadth from having no publisher at all, worked its way into my very bones. That insecurity, some of which is economic, seems to have induced a permanent terror of turning anything down—anything that will make money, fortify my name recognition, or support book sales. And spare me. I don’t need to be told that this indiscriminate, pushover availability is pathetic.

Thus, at a time I desperately need to get my next first draft off the ground, check out my commitments for the next couple of months or so: multiple-hour interviews with Dutch and Belgian periodicals, along with the dreaded photo shoots. Literary festival appearances in London’s Soho, Charleston, Birmingham, Cheltenham, Newcastle, Folkestone, Cambridge, Wapping, and Bali (yeah, yeah, tell us another sob story—but Southeast Asia involves a 17-hour plane trip and a discombobulating seven-hour time difference; I still have to work on more than my tan). A reading of one of my short stories at the Arts Club in London. Dinners with my publisher and editor to discuss a new imprint. Copious radio interviews. A ceremony for the National Short Story Award, for which I’m short-listed—and prizes are a particularly destructive time and emotion suck, since in most cases you don’t win. The delivery of a “sermon” in Manchester, which for an atheist will be a big ask. A formal lecture in Amsterdam, replete with mini author’s tour for the Dutch translation of my last novel. A panel on “storytelling” for Mumsnet. A presentation to prospective supporters of Standpoint magazine, for which I write a monthly column. An “in-conversation” for a medical conference. What already awaits in 2014? A reading at the Royal Academy, a two-week promotional tour of Australia, a six-week teaching residency in Falmouth, events in Muncie, Indiana, and Bath, and invitations, as yet mercifully unaccepted, to festivals in Alberta, Vancouver, Estonia, and Singapore.

I’m concerned that my delivery of this cascade of beaverishness might come across as boasting. On the contrary, it serves as both lament and confession. My scribbled diary is a disgrace. Taken as a whole, my upcoming schedule does not remotely represent the life I signed up for when I was seven years old.

These admittedly elective diversions are all on top of a host of ongoing botherations bound to confront any fiction writer foolish enough to have poked a head above the public parapet: beseechings to blurb other writers’ books (therefore read them). Requests to review other writers’ books (therefore read them—and because reviewers are only paid for their own wordage, these assignments pay about 25 cents an hour; for your trouble, the author will probably hate you). Essays like this one. Solicitations of quotes (free quotes) to fill out other journalists’ articles. Book launch invites. Charity appeals for signed, annotated first editions to be auctioned at tedious galas at which your attendance is expected and for which you have nothing to wear. Interview requests from foreign newspapers, asking you to discourse at length about a novel of which you are not only tired but, said book being two or three publications back and only now coming out in Greek, you don’t even remember. Website and book supplement demands for “your favorite book,” “your five favorite books,” “your ten favorite books,” “the book that changed your life,” “your book recommendations for Christmas,” and “your favorite summer beach reads.” Importunings to judge literary prizes, which means you can’t even win them. I may boycott social networking, but e-mail is bad enough, and for many of my colleagues, Facebook and Twitter must easily leech, as Kazuo Ishiguro would say, the remains of the day.

Meanwhile, any author is now expected to pull out all the stops for a book release. The more publishing in aggregate gets hysterical about the end of literature as we once knew it—I personally am not the only agent of insecurity here—the more their publicists are frantic for writers to accept any opportunity whatsoever to attract attention. This means setting weeks aside, or—in the case of writers who publish simultaneously in the English-speaking territories of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and the U.K., as I do—up to four months aside for e-mail, radio, and TV interviews; unrelenting photo shoots when you have already used up your small, tawdry wardrobe on the last book release; yet more festival and bookstore appearances; and scads of journalistic assignments: features and comment pieces riffing on the nonfiction subjects nominally related to your novel, filler slots like “My Favorite Thing,” or lazy, personal bare-alls to make yourself seem interesting. But considering how you spend most of your time—repeating yourself ad nauseam—you are not interesting.

So: When does a novelist write novels? Writing the books themselves gets fit in here and there, like making time for taking out the trash before bed. I have grown perversely nostalgic for my previous commercial failure—when my focus was pure, and the books were still fun to write, even if nobody read them.

I’ve never understood why so many people seem fascinated by the “writing life,” and if this rundown of today’s real “writing life” seems disappointing, it’s meant to be. Sure, there’s no precise requirement that authors put themselves in the way of all that froufrou. But this is a high-anxiety occupation. With publishers’ recent hanky-twisting over whether there will even be a publishing industry in ten years, that anxiety has gone into overdrive. Could we authors learn to “just say no”? Perhaps. Still, how many names that the public has learned to recognize will it soon forget? More than by ambition, “just say yes” is powered by fear.

That is a fear now horribly familiar to many Americans in other fields. In the queasy post-2008 economic climate, few employees feel safe. A friend in finance is only certain of keeping his job until Christmas: standard, of late. After negotiating a new two-book contract, I am ironically more locked in professionally than swaths of my compatriots with jobs not formerly regarded as risky bets. Granted, I still have to write the books, and HarperCollins needn’t accept what I submit. (Since publishers can readily opt out, the reassurance of a “contract” is largely false.) Nevertheless, for the next few years, I will not be fired. Especially now that I’ve reached the deadly age of 56, that makes me lucky.

Still able to make a living through mainstream publishing, my generation of writers has been lucky. If sometimes stressful or distracting, even subsidiary commitments are also opportunities: to connect with flesh-and-blood readerships, to air views and grievances, to exploit a more theatrical side of one’s character (I’m a ham), and for pity’s sake to get out of the house. Festivals can widen the world to include India, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, China, and Dubai. Many aspirant writers might wish bitterly that they had an invitation to Bali to complain about.

Yet that bitterness would be misplaced. The attraction of this occupation should not be its ancillary perks. Hence I not only worry about publishing’s entire economic infrastructure imploding, as single talented voices are drowned by a populist clamor of amateurs eager to be read on the Internet for the price of a double-click. I also worry about writers of the near future who make it—only to blog, tweet, e-mail, text, and Facebook their precious time away; only to be swept up in the confoundingly elaborate architecture of appearances, celebrity profiles, website questionnaires, and photo spreads built atop the fragile foundation of a lone imagination at a desk. For scrawls in an author’s diary readily become either excuses to procrastinate or objects of justifiable resentment as competition for the solitary, reflective life that rightly constitutes the real thing.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Lionel Shriver has experienced both poles of the author's existence: scrimping obscurity and a day in the sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel is Big Brother.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era