Earlier this year the mega-selling British author Lee Child announced his retirement from writing at the age of 65. Fair enough. Traditionally it’s the age at which most working lives are ending, the age when a State Pension is almost upon us, although presumably Mr Child doesn’t need one of those. On statistical average, he has another twenty years of freedom from the burden of productivity. He can spend his time learning Mandarin, listening to Wagner, playing snooker, baking cup-cakes, or whatever other activities he prefers in his unbound retirement.
Why am I not even tempted by this idea? Sales of my books are never likely to be more than a miniscule fraction of Lee Child’s and I am seven years older than him, an age at which almost all my friends, those who are not writers, are already learning languages, listening to opera and practising their cue-ball control. Many continue working in various ways, but as volunteers: their professional salaried existence is over and they don’t seem to mind. What really excites them, after years of slogging through the daily round, is the chance to do something different, perhaps pro bono publico, perhaps pro bono of themselves. Yet I continue to settle at my desk every day and put down word after word, sentence after sentence. The thought of stopping is unthinkable. To stop would be on a par with driving off a cliff.
It isn’t just me, because it’s very unusual to find well-established authors voluntarily chucking their pens, typewriters or laptops into the trash. The greatest and most dramatic example might be Arthur Rimbaud who gave up his roaring success as a poet to become, at various times before his death from cancer in his late thirties, an explorer in remote parts of Ethiopia, a merchant in coffee, and a gunrunner. But Rimbaud was always given to extreme behaviour and his post-writing trajectory was really an act of symbolical suicide, wasn’t it? Other writers like Thomas Chatterton, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace have retired from writing by literal suicide. But the sheer finality of the deed seems to prove the rule: how hard it is to give up the writing life and take up another.
Even for well-known writers the tides of fame and success can ebb alarmingly fast. But, far from giving the job up, many settle for publication by smaller imprints rather than major ones, and may even resort to self-publication, online self-publication, and if all else fails blogging. The latter-day career of the grimly funny BBC Radio 4 character Ed Reardon, himself named after George Gissing’s doggedly unsuccessful novelist in New Grub Street, springs painfully to mind.
Another novelist, Barbara Pym, should inspire all writers when fashion and the times swing against them. Her comic world of devoutly Anglican spinsters, vying for romance among the teacups, was popular with readers in the 1950s. But as the 1960s dawned, by which time she had published six reasonably profitable novels, her publishers suddenly dropped her. They rejected her seventh title, An Unsuitable Attachment, feeling that no one was interested now in Pym’s fictional world, where such things as the cuteness of curates and the romance of eating Battenberg cake in the Kardomah Café were matters of forceful importance. If that felt like a hefty nudge to fold her hand, Pym didn’t take the hint. Plugging on, she wrote novel after novel and submitted them to no less than twenty-one different publishers, in some cases pseudonymously in the hope of an objective verdict. All were rejected. Then, in 1977, when she had just three years to live, a symposium in the Times Literary Supplement voted for a list of underrated novelists. Two of the contributors (one being Philip Larkin) mentioned Pym and, after that, not only was she able to publish three new novels, but one of them was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. After her death in 1980, the rest of the spurned titles from her wilderness years were issued.
In the cases of two American novelists who fell silent after great early success the decision to stop publishing appeared to be all their own. J. D. Salinger had become world famous for The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. A handful of short stories had followed when, in or around the mid-1960s, he virtually disappeared from public view until his death forty-five years later. Meanwhile Harper Lee’s first novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) was just as big a success as Salinger’s. But for the next fifty-five years of her life she published nothing new. Go Set a Watchman, which came out just before she died, had been an early draft of Mockingbird.
But, as it turned out, neither Lee nor Salinger had actually retired from writing. He is said to have sat down at his desk every day and worked. She also wrote on, labouring over a novel, and a nonfiction book, that never seemed to come right. Their inability to publish was, I suppose, a reaction to their previous enormous success, a giant attack of ‘second-novelitis’. This is a common condition: Joseph Heller appears to have had a bad encounter with it after publishing Catch-22 as he took another thirteen years to bring out his next novel Something Happened. It may be that the problem for Heller, as well as for Lee and Salinger, was how to manage their fear of readers’ expectations. After a great triumph, the writer is supposed to go on to even greater ones, and this can result in years of literary constipation. But that is not the same as retirement.
A novelist who definitely did leave the field was Thomas Hardy. In his mid-fifties, with a dozen novels and several collections of stories in print, he brought out his last, Jude the Obscure, in 1895. This desperately sad, dark tale of misdirected desire, highly critical of Christianity, provoked howls of outrage from various quarters, especially clergymen – the Bishop of Wakefield was said to have burned it ‘probably in his despair at not being able to burn me’, as Hardy commented – and he later claimed it was these negative responses to the book that made him abandon fiction. Whether that is literally true, Hardy’s decision was to retire only as a novelist, not as a writer. He had always wanted to devote himself to verse, and he chose this moment to do so, effectively reinventing himself as a twentieth-century poet. He stuck to this new career for the next thirty-three years of his life and the results were wonderful. Auden called him, as a poet, ‘my first Master’ and Larkin is reputed to have kept a book of Hardy’s poems by his bed.
What is so tenacious about the writing bug that makes us keep on doing it in the teeth of all odds and difficulties? I will speak only for myself. I wanted to write from the age of twelve. For about twenty-five years I did write – a lot – but I kept almost all my work private. Envious of those smart young things (Rimbaud having been one) who could spring fully formed into print as teenagers, I pushed myself through a long and lonely apprenticeship, aware that what I was doing was still unpublishable. But I also knew I was steadily learning the trade and hopefully learning too the Hardy-esque ‘art of concealing art’, until at last I did publish. Now, with around twenty-five books of many different kinds under my name, I am merely aware of all the things I still want to write. I also have the feeling that to stop at this point would be a kind of betrayal of the years of effort I put into getting on the writer’s ladder, and of the subsequent grafting, frustrating, fulfilling, marvellous years in which I have stayed on it. I know I haven’t climbed all that high. I know that newer, fresher, fitter writers have already climbed past me. But I’m damned if I’ll jump off now.
Thomas Hardy had the same determination. His poem ‘The Superseded’ puts it like this:
’Tis not that we have unforetold The drop behind; We feel the new must oust the old In every kind; But yet we think, must we, must we, Too, drop behind?