Friday, June 15, 2007

Behind the struggles of struggling writers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, collections, writing

One thing at least, besides being a published writer, these 66 writers have in common:
Eric Chase Anderson, Jake Arnott, Tash Aw, David Baddiel, Nicholson Baker, Melissa Bank, Caren Beilin, Ronan Bennett, Anthony Bourdain, Alain de Botton, Arthur Bradford, A. S. Byatt, John Byrne, Tim Carvell, Douglas Coupland, Marie Darrieussecq, Jill Dawson, Janine Di Giovanni, Tony D'Souza, Geoff Dyer, Michel Faber, William Fiennes, Tibor Fischer, James Flint, Jonathan Franzen, David Guterson, Peter Hobbs, Alan Hollinghurst, A. M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, A. L. Kennedy, Chip Kidd, Nicole Krauss, Hanif Kureishi, Neil LaBute, Nick Laird, JT LeRoy, Jonathan Lethem, Javier Marias, Benjamin Markovits, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney, Rick Moody, Narasha Mostert, Audrey Niffenegger, Joyce Carol Oates, Gina Ochsner, ZZ Packer, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Dan Rhodes, Tom Robbins, Bruce Robinson, Luis J. Rodriguez, Nar Segnit, Will Self, Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver, Iain Sinclair, Jane Smiley, Ahdaf Soueif, Adam Thirlwell, Matt Thorne, Vendela Vida, Willy Vlautin, Louisa & Isabel Adomakoh Young
Of the 66, I previously knew of only six, and only of two have I read more than a paragraph. Of those two, only one am I likely to read from again. I guess my taste is even more restrictive than Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is junk." So anyway, what do they have in common?

They all contributed a paragraph or three to How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe...with Philip Ottermann, in very small type. Many authors were asked what they needed—a special toy, room, ambience, whatever—to keep the words flowing. These contributed photos and short essays. For one, it is a tiny toy wind-up horse named Clippity; for another, a fifteen-foot-long built-in desk; for another, a few thousand sticky notes; and yet another, chain-smoking, but only during writing time.

If these self-revelations are any guide, I haven't lost much by not reading most of them. Theirs is a specialized audience, or indeed, sixty or more niche audiences. I found it interesting to compare the list of authors mentioned by the editors in their preface, and their quirks:
Agatha Christie, Gore Vidal, Lewis Carroll, Anthony Burgess, William Faulkner, G. K. Chesterton, Dan Brown, Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Henrik Ibsen, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Philip Roth, Thomas Wolfe, Bruno Schulz, Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Vladimir Nabokov
Of these twenty, the only one I hadn't heard of is Bruno Schulz, and I've read from all the others. Their quirks were of a similar range: several require plenty of alcohol fuel; others coffee or tea; some a special ring, or mittens, or slippers; one wrote only in a rocker. A few on the former list, and many on the latter, "classic" list, wrote only by hand, eschewing typewriters or other automated helps.

The book is almost coffee-table size, yet the total text is no more than 20,000 words. Of course, there are the pictures nearly every author sent, but also tons of other artwork, graphics fantasies and typographic gingerbread. Without all that, the book would be the size of the "slim volume of poems" that encompasses many an author's first hardcover output.

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