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On the seven great questions of an author’s life.

When a recent contributor to The Author described himself as 'something of a writing guru', I was aware of a lurch of jealousy within me. What a wonderful life it would be to live as a guru for would-be authors, spending one's days dispensing gnomic thoughts about irony, structure and narrative voice with a serene, goofy smile. The connection with a spiritual quest is a valid one. Writing, it has been said, is a form of prayer. When adherents gather for enlightenment, they can experience moments of joy, revelation and, if one of the gamier gurus is involved, misbehaviour. On the road to Nirvana - a publishing deal, a single-figure Amazon rating, a critical benediction from Professor John Carey - many are called, but few are chosen. What, though, are the articles of faith around which a belief system should based? Mine, were I ever to attain guru status, would be single...

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On not writing at all

In response to the many successful author-based columns - 'My Favourite Character in Fiction, 'Me and My Editor', 'How I Write' and so on - I have been asked to initiate an occasional Endpaper series which will provide advice and support for those working in one of the most neglected, and least glamorous, areas of literary life. 'How I Don't Write' will address those professionals who refuse to compromise their imaginative vision by reducing it to mere words, who have recognised that not writing something is incomparably more difficult and demanding than writing it - something that, as we know to our cost, virtually any unseated MP or resting actor can do at the drop of a cheque. Many writers have considered moving into non-production but have been daunted by the competition. They think of Ernest Hemingway who, towards the end of his life, was so blocked that he was...

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On being a genius, a talker or a one-book wonder

You are getting a partial view. Occasionally, through the clamour of writers having their say in these pages, the voice of a publisher can be heard, speaking up nervously, politely and with proper respect for the great profession of authorhood. You don’t fall for that, do you? You know that he’s either going through the motions, or has dreams of being a writer himself, or is simply some kind of throwback to the days when publishers and authors used to get on. In book trade circles, he will soon get the reputation of having gone over to the other side. By this time next year, he’ll be probably be on the scrapheap. Because, as a general rule, the modern publisher is far too busy to worry about authors - their blocks, their breakdowns, their hilariously untidy personal lives. Listening to their views about how to run his business would be...

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On keeping yourself pure

So now we know. One great writer is arrogant and a snob. Another great writer is a mean-spirited marital bully. A third great writer has dodgy attitudes towards food and sex. The new school of confessional memoir, literature’s answer to the tabloid kiss-and-tell story, has of late been taking us behind the revered printed page for a sneak, voyeuristic peep at the flawed personality who created it. Big, uncompromising writers have always, and for obvious reasons, been suspect to the average working journalist, and recent memoirs from Philip Roth’s ex wife Claire Bloom, from JD Salinger’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard and from VS Naipaul’s ex-disciple Paul Theroux have provided the vast army of press opinion-mongers with acres of sanctimonious copy. But those who write for living will read these accounts in a different spirit. Taken together, they can be seen to represent a model of artistic will and purity - an...

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On authors and housework

Have you done the washing up? Or did you leave it on the sideboard in the comfy expectation that, by the time your return from your work (yes, reading The Author is work, actually), some civilian, some non-writer, will have dealt with it? Maybe you have an absolute treasure who relieves you of the problem altogether, allowing you that all-important thinking time that is so important for those of us in the creative industries. These are not entirely facetious questions. Already this year, the role of washing up in the writer’s life has become a leading issue of literary debate. Several reviewers of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, for example, have been worried by the fact that, throughout his marriage, the great man was never known to have taken his plate at the end of a meal from the table to the sink, nor to have washed up a...

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On publishing your own work

It was a truly poignant moment of television. The author Timothy Mo, filmed by BBC Newsnight, was ringing WH Smith to book an appointment to discuss a novel to be published by the Paddleless Press. Who was the novel by? Timothy Mo, actually. Yes, he explained, he was both publisher and author. The name was spelt M.O - as in ‘Half a -’ Actually, he had been twice short-listed for the Booker Prize. Yes, the Booker. And so it went on, a horrific authorial nightmare. At the time, two years ago, for an eminent novelist willingly to impersonate a publisher’s rep on behalf of his own work suggested some kind of nervous breakdown, particularly when it was revealed that what had driven Mo into self-publishing was a humiliating, insulting offer from his publisher of £125,000. But no. It turned out that this exercise in self-abasement was not an aberration but...

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On being Harvey Porlock

It is, I am depressed to discover, Harvey Porlock’s birthday. For ten years now, Harvey has looked at the week’s book pages, reporting, sometimes in a bolshy, opinionated fashion, on the efforts of reviewers, a small-time whistle-blower within the literary establishment. He has changed over the years and has become less even-handed, more crotchety and paranoiac. As fictional characters are supposed to do, he has taken on a life of his own. Harvey, c’est moi. Every week, under his name, I write the Sunday Times ‘Critical List’ column, offering a snapshot of the literary cavalcade as it passes by. Conceived and named by John Walsh, then literary editor, Harvey Porlock was originally to be have been inhabited by three writers, taking turns to consider the week’s reviews. It’s a fiddly, time-consuming job, involving many trips to the newsagent, much tearing out and scrutinising of book-related items, selection of the most...

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On being the wife of an author

There was a time, not so long ago, when to live and care for an author was thought to provide its own small rewards in terms of posterity. So Mrs Tolstoy transcribed five full drafts of War and Peace, Mrs Chesterton tied her husband’s shoelaces for him, and Mrs Nabokov organised and attended every one of Vladimir’s lectures. But to judge from recent evidence, this basic loyalty to husband and muse has become yet another casualty in the great new gender war. How should the wife of an author behave? The question itself seems old-fashioned, even sexist. Yet, week after week this column - regarded by many as the caring, human face of The Author - receives letters from women who are confused and discontented by their role in the literary process. This is not an agony column - there is, after all, a limit to how much comfort one man can bring...

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On suffering from life block

“Thank God for lovely work,” a writer-friend said the other day. She been having a tough time on the romance front and now was returning, bruised by life, to the author’s place of ultimate safety - the study. Writing as therapy: how tempting it is, and yet how dangerous. For weeks, months, you can hide away in your work, avoiding the perilous, uncontrollable thing they call the “real world”. Then one day, perhaps for reasons of research or simply because you have become uneasily aware that you are missing out in some way, you decide to step outside, blinking and nervous, and join the party... But - here’s the horror - you seem to have lost the knack of living. Everything in the real world seems loud and fast and threatening. People stride about, apparently talking to themselves. Conversation is difficult, particularly when you asked about events, celebrities and TV...

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On what you want, what you’d settle for, and what you get

“Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness,” Georges Simenon once wrote but, like his other pronouncements - those 10,000 women he was supposed to have slept with, for example - his words contain only a fraction of the truth. Writing, as we all know, is a profession which exists in the dark, perilous territory between hope and reality - between what you want, what you’d settle for, and what you get… The work You want to write a work of towering genius in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy. You’d settle for writing a timely reflection of the zeitgeist in the tradition of Bridget Jones. You get a Christmas stocking-filler in the tradition of Ronnie Barker’s Book of Boobs. The agent You want a hip young gunslinger from a hot agency. You’d settle for a knackered old soak with an adequate contact-list. You get your mum. The sale...

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