In an article for Collected a few months ago, Katharine Grant wrote about her dread of the question ‘where (as a writer) do you get your ideas?’ I have been asked this too, but it has always arisen in a public arena such as a book festival, where the audience is armed with questions to shoot at the authors on the podium. But there is another query, just as commonly put, though not meant to be discussed in front of other people. It is among the most trappy and poison-tipped questions a writer can be asked.
I’m on a flight in economy class. Finally the duel of elbows with the person next to me is settled in a wordless compromise and the trolley comes round. The drinks relax us and we get talking. Sooner or later the question of what I do for a living comes up. I say I write books. ‘Oh, really?’ he says. ‘Should I have heard of you?’
It is never easy to answer. It depends what’s in the other guy’s mind. I might assume the question means simply ‘who are you?’ and is an invitation to tell him about my books. If he’s a real reader, our conversation will evolve into an exploration of what we both like and dislike in literature. But ‘should I have heard of you?’ is rarely asked by people who are friendly towards books. What interests the man in the seat beside me is not literature but celebrity.
The way he puts his question does allow for the possibility that he is apologising for this – ‘am I in the wrong for not having heard of you?’ – but it is more likely, as I give my usual, self-deprecating, answer: ‘no, actually, I’m not at all famous’, that the polarities will be reversed. The implication is that I’m the one at fault for not being well-known because, after all, there isn’t much point in being a writer unless it leads to fame and numerous offshore bank accounts. Since this man knows only the names of famous writers, only famous writers count in his eyes. It used to be called being a household name; now, when even households are going digital, one might be called an influencer. Either way, to fall short of this standard – to be a financially struggling ‘mid-list’ author – is to be a failure and probably a figure of contempt.
But there is even nastier pond life lurking in the depths of ‘should I have heard of you?’ The question opens up a palpable gap between the writer and the interlocutor, across which I am being tacitly accused of claiming a special elite status. Writers are members of a clique and worse an intellectual clique. The unspoken (even the unthought) thought behind the question is ‘you think you’re someone special — so prove it to me’. It is passive-aggressive. In the context of our current national mood – populist, anti-intellectual – ‘should I have heard of you?’ has become not really a question at all, but a challenge and even a political one.
In the politics of writing today, the big issues are the status and shrinking earnings of writers, and the evaluation of writing itself. In the universities, and in publishing, the argument is about whether diversity is more important in principle than traditional critical values. Both camps, however, are engaged in some form of (in the right sense of the word) discrimination — of elitism. The man next to me in the aeroplane seat would not even grasp what is at issue here. He takes an entirely free-market position, whereby the successful and popular writer rises to the top of the money tree, which is the only true mark of success. Everything else in sight is elitist nonsense.
How wrong this is. The mid-list is where the best writing is done, some of it quirky, experimental and outrageous, and much more of it careful, crafty and modest. This vast space between the elite and the popular writer is the battleground on which most of us fight the fight for good sentences and right meanings. There is infinite variety in the mid-list — but are there any common threads? G. K. Chesterton was a literary heavy-hitter who championed popular tastes against the critical elite because he believed that ordinary worldly things are more wonderful than intellectual constructs. His talent and inventiveness propelled him to immense popular success, and he was certainly a household name. Yet, for me, his corpulent frame embodied the very quality that makes the mid-list writer such an easily endangered species.
He was a brilliant and compulsive writer of books and journalism, but never a rich man because, however much money he made, it was spent without G. K. quite knowing where it had gone. His worldliness was also unworldly, which is in itself a Chestertonian paradox. Incompetence in dealing with other things – money, love, alcohol – is not a necessary condition for competence in writing, but it is certainly no hindrance to it, and the profession of writing has always seemed disproportionately to attract impractical people. They come, too, from across the spectrum of personality: the usually impoverished George Gissing, though his disposition and talents were as different as could be from Chesterton’s, was equally useless when faced with the nuts and bolts of living.
In a recent discussion on literary status in the letters pages of the Times Literary Supplement the writer Lesley Chamberlain argues that their ‘moral status vanished when writers’ real lives started to be marketed as potentially more sensational than their books’. But the real fallout of the crash in writers’ earnings is that almost nobody can just be ‘a writer’ now. Unless you have a private income or a fat pension (or are a truly expert sponger) a day job is going to be required. And here lies the difficulty. The very streak of Chestertonian unworldliness in so many good writers makes a second career very hard to sustain.
Having some sort of other identity, whether successful or not, does at least mean that writers can if they want evade the trap in the question at the head of this article by just saying that they’re ‘in publishing’, ‘a teacher’ or ‘a digital content provider’. Until recently I could, if I felt like it, use the cover of ‘art historian’, but I still went on calling myself a writer. Why? Chamberlain has an interesting answer. It is ‘because writers find companionship in the fact that other writers have struggled through the ages’. I stopped short when I read that sentence.
Of course to be a writer isn’t about moral status. It isn’t about social prestige or five-figure royalties either. It is the word ‘companionship’ that strikes home. Writing is a solitary as well as a poorly-rewarded craft (or art) but there is still between writers a companionship (a much better word than the over-used ‘community’), and it spreads across time and space. Many have pursued this difficult craft (or art) and – in a worldly sense – vastly more feel they have failed than succeeded. When Samuel Beckett wrote ‘Fail again. Fail better,’ he was simply expressing the reality of most writers’ lives. To be emboldened and comforted by the companionship of other writers you admire, past and present, is therefore not only a daily necessity, it is an important part of the very reason that those of us in the mid-list keep writing.
My travelling companion on the plane has shown that he isn’t a companion at all, because he doesn’t, and will never, get this. So, how best to answer him when he says, ‘Oh really? Should I have heard of you?’ ‘No,’ I want to say, ‘not if you feel the need to ask.’