A few years back, after I had sold my first novel but before it had been published, I remember laughing at a tweet which said something to the effect of “We need to talk about how traumatising it is to publish a book”. Come on, I thought. Is the definition of “trauma” now so meaninglessly broad that it applies to one of the most coveted experiences available to a creative person? Publication may be stressful – but grow up. Actual suffering, actual trauma, does not apply to this privileged realm.
Then my book came out, and I went crazy. I’ll be honest: I’d been crazy before – fairly regularly in fact, and I still think it is insufferable to describe the publication process as “traumatising”. And yet the extremity of what I felt was chastening. I was embarrassed by my panic and pain. My first novel was published during the final Covid lockdown – I lived alone and spent what should have been the first unqualified success of my adult life, the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition, in total isolation. My talents as a socialite were not useful on Zoom. I learned that at least half of my gift for conversation is to do with body language and tactility. Reduced to a talking digital image, I felt the charisma and vitality drain out of me. I did dozens and dozens of promotional interviews for the book in this way, as my grin took aching root in my clenched jaw.
The questions I was asked about my novel were mostly kind and sensitive but sometimes deranged to a degree that I found anthropologically fascinating. I am thinking of a seemingly intelligent woman who, less than a minute into our conversation, asked if I had ever been raped. I laughed in shock, not knowing what else to do. And then I answered her honestly, which is the more deranged thing, really. When you’re promoting a piece of creative work, no one tells you that you can object to anything, that you can and probably should say no to things. The implication you will have absorbed by this point is that you are operating inside of a scarcity economy where each crumb of publicity will go to one of the other dozen authors with debuts out that week if you turn it down. And who are you to decide what interviews are important or not? This is not your world.
In July the Guardian published an article investigating the mental health effects of publication on authors, especially debuts. The writer Imogen Hermes Gowar said: “For me it was the total change in status […] Suddenly I was treated like the most important person in the room […] For publishing professionals, for whom this is all literally just another day at the office, it’s easy to overlook the fact that for a debut author it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.” Reactions to this article – and to complaints of this nature in general – tend to be derisive, perhaps understandably. Readers balk, just like I did when I read that trauma tweet. It’s impossible to overlook the fact that publishing a book is both voluntary and enviable, making complaints seem churlish or naive. But this feeling is part of the publication panic: you are so acutely aware that it’s supposed to be the highlight of your life. I don’t want to get married, I used to tell people, I just want to have a big party when I publish my first book. Then my first book came out, and it transpired I was locked in a basement flat with nobody but an aggressive kitten for company. This, too, was a source of shame and sadness.
[See also: A TikTok publishing house is bad news for books]
I had a martini last night in New York with another young woman novelist. (I am writing this sentence to reassure you that being a published author does still involve some glamour.) Without me raising the subject, she told me she cried with loneliness the night she learned she sold her book. This woman is disgustingly young, very beautiful, and prodigiously talented: your basic nightmare, to paraphrase When Harry Met Sally. If I didn’t love her I would hate her, and certainly would never have imagined her to have experienced even a moment of unwanted solitude. But she felt a version of what I had felt: the arrival of something momentous without someone to share it with, which is not specific to publishing a book but is a strange aftertaste when you are being told by a team of professionals that you are the most special and wonderful person alive.
This is also why publishing makes us go crazy – the enormous discrepancy between the power writers are told we have, and the power we actually have. Publishing a book is sold as a distant, unthinkable dream – so when it happens to you, not only do you feel so lucky you will do or accept just about anything, but you are also filled, however briefly, with a delusional sense of your own importance. All your guilty, privately-held suspicions that you are in fact a once-in-a-generation genius are validated, for a moment. Am I the most special girl in the world? It turns out, yes! People will confirm this for you, repeatedly, because it is for some reason their job to do so. I don’t understand enough about money or business to say why, but I suppose it is in case you really do turn out to be the new Sally Rooney or Colleen Hoover.
When you don’t, it’s pretty funny to realise what material influence literary fiction holds. My second book was the tenth best-selling in Ireland in the weekend it came out, which sounds good and would have made me happy if the newspaper hadn’t also published the fact that this meant it had sold just under 400 copies. This wasn’t upsetting in terms of material success or money, rather a humbling reminder of how few people will actually encounter the work I spend my life obsessing over.
Ultimately, this is good for the soul to know. I would much rather be a frantic, anguished novelist than a comfortable, self-satisfied one. Recognising the gap between the value we hope we have and the value the world actually accords us is an existential crisis in most lives, not just those of novelists. It reminds me of something my friend, the artist Jesse Darling, once said when people were discussing the rising London living costs forcing artists to flee the city: “If it’s hard out here for the artists, maybe we should think about how everyone else is doing.”
[See also: Goodreads is degrading our literary culture]