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In Search Of Golden Chamber Pots

The joys of being a published writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

While it may be a truism to say that writers are liars, thieves, and generally not to be trusted, when I began to dare telling people I was writing stories I expected incomprehension and disapproval, but not the common note of disbelief in their voices when they said, ‘And have you published anything?’. The implication being that, until I had, I was not really a Writer, only someone who wrote. At least that’s what I heard. They were only asking a question I was already asking myself. As much as I enjoyed the writing process – its drip feed of satisfaction, the descending calm when a word seemed right or a sentence shone – from the beginning there was the desire for the work to be published and read. The thought of any greater outcome – books, reviews, prizes – was shoved into a cellar already full of pale and bug-eyed hopes. It was hard enough to write without feeling watched by them.

Years passed (I would prefer not to count them). Then one day I got an email that looked like a rejection but somehow, confusingly, amazingly, wasn’t. There can’t be many writers who have not experienced some measure of joy at their first publication. Only those, like Fernando Pessoa, who are able to not only see a glass as half-empty, but somehow break that glass as well, can find it a cause for sorrow. In a letter to his mother in 1914, Pessoa lamented that he was going to ‘lose something: my unpublished status. To change for the better, because change is bad, is always to change for the worse…to lose something negative – be it a personal defect or deficiency, or the fact of being rejected – is still a loss.’ After getting the acceptance I went around for the next two months with happiness pulsing in my head and chest as if I was listening to Born to Run on repeat. When I first saw my name on the contents page, it was like losing my virginity, only better, since it did not require a lot of cider or a cold, dark park.

My post-publication glow persisted for several months. Now that one impossible thing had occurred, other miracles would follow. From the cellar emerged the hope of being in the magazines whose italicized names smugly reclined in the biographical paragraphs of undoubtedly successful writers. Having climbed a small hill, the prospect of attempting bigger hills, then mountains, didn’t seem unreasonable.

When I published another story in the same magazine nine months later I was pleased, but not very. I knew the view from up there.

Over the next few years I climbed some bigger hills. But there were no Alps yet. I took comfort in J. D. Salinger’s pronouncement that ‘It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.’ My convenient reading of this was that the lack of any great success was an enabler of good work, which would then, in some beautiful, easy way, lead to that success, which although I didn’t want, I’d gracefully accept when it arrived. I didn’t give much thought to what the first-most valuable property of a writer might be, nor to the fact that this paean to obscurity had been delivered by a writer whose prodigious level of success might have offered him insight into what that achievement was actually worth.

There is no state of writerly delusion that cannot be justified by a quote from a famous writer. My next crutch was Roberto Bolaño’s assertion that ‘Prizes, seats (in the Academy), tables, beds, even golden chamber pots belong, of course, to those who are successful or to those who play the part of loyal and obedient clerks.’ Success was for sell outs who peddled linear, third person, realist fiction in which, after a 300-page germination, tiny epiphanies bloomed in dull characters’ minds. Every time I went into a bookshop or read the Guardian books section I found supporting evidence for the disgraceful condition of modern fiction in which writers were published and praised solely for commercial reasons, except, of course, for when it involved the anointed writers in my personal pantheon. But their success didn’t mean the game wasn’t rigged.

I bagged a few more hills. And then a little mountain. Being published in a magazine I had been reading for years, and never imagined I could ever get in, made me feel like I was walking around with a big gold star on my forehead. I bought many copies of the magazine, but rather than giving them out to friends, I made them form a small pile in my room, because one or two copies were somehow not proof enough of the ascent. But from there I had to keep going up. If I could just have my name on a spine, I’d be satisfied.

Three years later my first book appeared and got some kind reviews. I did readings in bookshops and went to a few literary festivals. For six months I felt as if the strong wind I’d been walking into for more than a decade had abruptly dropped. I could move easily, freely, sometimes risk looking at Twitter. But then there was a gust. Nabokov’s protagonist in The Gift realises he has been ‘giving copies to friends with pretentious or platitudinous inscriptions’. His book becomes ‘completely enclosed within itself, delimited and concluded, and no longer did it radiate those former powerful, glad rays’. My disenchantment was not quite as sudden: it was more like a seepage of certain thoughts, namely that though this was a proper book, for which I had received an advance, it was nonetheless a book from a minor publisher on a subject that was unlikely to find more than a niche audience. If this was a mountain, it was one so small it barely deserved the name.

This pattern of ascent then dissatisfaction has persisted throughout my career. Though I’ve made objective ‘progress’ – i.e. publishing in a few prestigious places, and having a couple of books come out from bigger publishers – the ‘powerful, glad rays’ that accompany publication rarely last more than a week. I’m too soon aware of being still in the shadows of taller peaks. And you might say, ‘That is just ambition’. Or you might say, ‘That is narcissistic and stupid.’ My thirty-year-old self, who’d have given anything to publish one book, let alone five, would be livid to hear such insecure whining. I’m not sure how I’d explain to him that it’s not what I haven’t achieved that upsets me, more the fact that success, when it briefly visits, is so swiftly devalued.

The problem, I suppose, is partly to do with expectation. First, there is the pantheon against which to compare one’s achievements. And then, on a more mundane level, there is the constant chatter of promotion generated by the publishing industry, which as a reader you don’t want to ignore, despite how it may make you feel as a writer. And while it may seem painfully obvious that the majority of this chatter cannot be about any particular writer, and that no one is being constantly called a genius (even those who are), if you’re not feeling secure about your own status then the successes of others, no matter how brief, are hurtful because they are not yours. Few young writers will find it easy to accept that the career they are most likely to have, barring exceptional talent, and some good fortune, is still Salinger’s ‘anonymity-obscurity’. Although they may keep publishing, climbing both hills and mountains, they will receive little praise or financial reward. None of which is unfair or unfortunate. The midlist is broad and deep. It is thus, if not insane, then very ill-advised, to stake most of one’s future happiness on being published in the New Yorker or winning the Booker prize. Behind each mountain, there is another, and so on, until the horizon.

Do I contain multitudes? Probably not. In myself, and most of you, there is only a fractured singularity trying to cover an absence. But if the ‘successes’ of writing aren’t going to mask that void, it raises the question of how to cope with whatever insecurities are involved in both the decision to write and the outcomes that follow. Naturally, there is a quote from a famous writer for this as well. Bolaño offers the Pyrrhic consolation ‘that in literature you always lose, but the difference, the enormous difference, lies in losing while standing tall, with eyes open, not kneeling in a corner praying to Jude the Apostle with chattering teeth.’ This is an appealing notion, and yet I can’t quite trust it. The idea of writing as a noble, quixotic pursuit that’s so intrinsically satisfying no external rewards are necessary seems far too romantic. We all need a chamber pot. Silver, bronze, or tin.

Nick Holdstock is the author of The Casualties, a novel, and The False River, a short story collection. He has written 3 books about China, including Chasing the Chinese Dream: Stories from Modern China and China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State. His work has appeared in the Guardian, LRB and the TLS.

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