by N. Quentin Woolf
Sentinel Literary Quarterly Resident Reviewer and Feedback Consultant in Literature, N. Quentin Woolf begins a new series of discourses on the processes of creating literature. We are confident that this column will prove invaluable to both the aspiring and established writer and will aid understanding of literature for Sentinel readers who are not writers themselves. We encourage you to join the conversation by telling us what you think about this column. Use the comment box below.
1. BEFORE THE WORKSHOP
It is nearly time. Soon they’ll be at the door, waiting, and then, after I’ve unlocked, they’ll mass, here at the back of the shop, in the area set aside for this sort of thing, whatever this sort of thing really is, ready to argue and applaud and opine. They will glance at one another, as they turn pages in unison. They will speak.
But first of all, it’s just me; me, and a circle of chairs. Wooden chairs are the best, on a wooden floor. Wood is what Joyce and Dickens and Fielding used, after all. Wood will do us. The shelves around the circle are all over in books, because this is a bookshop, which keeps books on shelves, still, unlike the library, which kicked the habit long ago. The great and the overrated, their names in bold type, embossed maybe, read like a memorial wall. These are they to whom we are in debt, for one reason or another. The shadows they cast are long.
Often, while the door remains locked, I sit alone, outside the hollow circle, and contemplate its meaning. It’s easy to get spiritual about a circle of chairs in a bookshop, I find. Ritual and tradition adhere to them, as to church pews. The cushion placed on each chair to protect the withered writerly rump could easily be thrown on the floor and prayed upon, should the muse go AWOL, while, all around, the kaleidoscope of colours of the fiction covers dazzles like stained glass.
There is great symbolic power in an empty chair. It is where a person is not finding relaxation; is not taking their rightful place; is not. Mankind likes specific chairs for specific activities: here a specific thing isn’t happening, yet. Moreover, some of the chairs have been adopted as the perch of choice by individual group members, so that it is possible, before the opening of the door, to say that this is where Viv is not sitting, and here is where we do not find Joe. The absent figures exert a gravitational pull, like dark matter – like a deleted scene.
In this sort of environment, with a little time to kill, one finds oneself asking the big questions of writing. What is it for, for one thing? What drives so many people to lay down words? To whom do we write, when we write? And what brings me here, week after week, to the writers’ group? Hell, I’m making a crust at it; what brings the rest of them?
A lot of people write. I mean, really a lot of people. I teach creative writing classes and run groups for writers at every stage of development, and, in case you doubted it, I can assure you that there is no shortage of people with manuscripts stashed in drawers, screenplay treatments buried beneath their beds, poems scribbled down on the back of gas bills.
Although the popular myth of literary mechanics is that the writer writes a text, and then the reader reads it and decides whether or not it’s any good, the truth is somewhat different. Writing is a sphere, and reading is a sphere, and, necessarily with spheres, the scope for surface contact is minimal. Almost all readers will never read any given writer’s work, confining themselves to a narrow band of works – published works – in their mother tongue. That’s a lot of missed connections. Meanwhile, a pretty large proportion of people who write – it’s impossible to put a number to it – will never see their words in print, while almost all those who do get published will see only a sliver of their corpus between covers – and not the best stuff, either, probably. Yes: most of what is written, even by able writers, will never be read, except by friends, family, agents and other writers. Readers, meanwhile, will follow trends and be marketed to, and select from the slim pickings offered by the last fiction retailer standing where the town centre used to be.
Given this state of affairs, it’s no surprise to me that readers need reading groups and writers need writing groups. Literature is not a shared experience across these two constituencies; there is no similarity between the process of writing and the process of reading. (Just consider how differently one thinks with an awareness of agency.) Despite there being in existence a wealth of texts – I’m including all the great prose and poems locked up in aspirant writers’ hard drives – readers have access to only a tiny sample, made canonical by the act of publication, but selected by such high literary concerns as whether the author happens to be a famous gardener, or whether a tragedy similar to that depicted in the fiction has befallen some poor bugger recently, or whether it’s a bit like another book that made a few quid.
While we’re about it, let’s rid ourselves of the notion that, because something’s unpublished, it’s no good. Among the many attributes a writer must have in order to get their work into print, besides blind luck, is the self-confidence to self-promote, a quality more in demand today, in a world where book signings and radio appearances and campaign endorsements do more to bump up book sales than does featuring on the shelves of an ever-dwindling number of book-stores. Some of our greatest writers didn’t have the requisite chutzpah to flourish in this anarchy of Great I-Ams. Think Kafka. Similarly, the decline in reader numbers means that mass appeal (note: I don’t say of the text) is far more important than the quality of the text itself. This, plus the breathtakingly low income of the average scribe and the resultant paucity of resources at his disposal, means there are few professions less likely to command or be able to generate mass appeal than that of Writer. It is lazy to imagine that the best literature rises to the top. In fact, dear reader, you are just as likely to be turning an author’s pages because they have a big pair of balls, capped teeth and a popular Twitter feed.
The ‘net is game-changing, of course. Amazon looks set to cut print publishers out of the deal altogether, in much the same way i-Tunes out-manoeuvred the record labels. The upshot will be an infinite shop-window, stocked with a limitless number of e-books . There will be no more casting one’s eye for an appealing cover or a zingy blurb – the numbers will be simply too large. Filters and searches will be crucial, meaning more than ever that texts will have to conform to genre types, or risk being lost in catalogue black holes. Becoming a brand or a best-seller will be even more important than now, heightening the requirement to be either a very, very popular writer, or someone who can play the Amazon algorithm, or a Somebody who also happens to write. In this arrangement, decision-making ceases to be based on actual availability and, in inverse proportion to the amount of choice on offer, relies instead on recommendations by contacts within social networks, ‘friends’ who shine flashlights at random into the void, illuminating a fortunate few. Meaning – yes, you guessed it – that the tech-savvy writer who knows the difference between de.li.cious and reddit trumps the merely bookish every time.
It’s worth mentioning that intensive new media publicity generation is no small ask of the writer: not without reason, although reasons vary, does an artist choose to be absent at the moment their art is delivered; not without some basis in fact is the image of the writer as misanthrope, eccentric, recluse. One effect of this paradigm shift will be to breed out by natural selection the very characteristics that have hitherto defined writers. Out they shall be shoved, blinking, into the glare of an unsought publicity, under orders to find the common denominator or perish.
Of the people who come to the writers’ groups I chair, a certain number have the ability to make themselves heard in this way. A small proportion of them could be said to be capable of generating something like mass appeal; of those, a smaller percentage still have the desire and the resources to go through with it. What, then, for the rest of us? Are we just playing at being writers? (God knows society is ready to infantilise its artists. If they don’t appear to have made a stack of cash from their art, they’re just screwing around. Talking seriously about one’s art without the sales to back it up is mere pretension.) In this unfriendly environment, our odds of success lie somewhere between a multiple lottery win and the triumph of any given sperm.
Should we sentimentalise the act of writing, and persuade ourselves that we’re doing it merely for the love of the craft? Whilst it is a safe fallback for any writer, I think this position is disingenuous. For the most part, we write to be understood, or to be heard, or to entertain, or to let people see how smart we are, or – the unthinkable – for money. For all of these functions, we need an audience more than the audience needs us. Do we simply quit? We are not stupid people: we know the odds. Do we embrace, rather than distrust, the entrepreneurial part of a life in the arts?
I think that there is probably no satisfactory answer to all of this. If, as a writer, you have read this far hoping to find one, I am sorry to disappoint. But then, as a writer, having read this far, you will by now have found yourself in disagreement with me, or else recognised the intractability of the problem inherent in the craft that has chosen you. What I see, though, looking at the circle of empty chairs, is something that transcends the merely temporal concerns of publication and finance. We write, I think, because we have faith – in the form, probably; in ourselves, perhaps – whether we are endowed with fangs and a commercial streak, or craft stanzas no-one else will see, or churn out half-decent prose to order, or read doggerel to a sympathetic group to assert our existence, or take holidays in the worlds of novels of our own creation and file the rejection slips with good humour; or, miraculously, once in a while, shake hands and clink wine glasses and read an extract from chapter three to a small rapt audience of people who somehow read our writing – the fleeting contact of the spheres. We do this because we have a belief in the written word, a faith that the foundations of all this are right.
It is opening time. I take a final look around the room, this time looking, not at the names of the writers on the bookshelves, but at the circle of chairs, each place ready. I check that they are all straight.
I always find myself breathing deeply before the session starts. Preparing for a session is preparing for a journey. There are no certainties about what will be shared – souls might be bared; offence might be caused; magic might be done. The only sure thing is the entente than unites us, for a couple of hours at least. We will work together to write better.
Perhaps one day, some part of what we’ve refined might make you smile, or well up, or catch your breath, but we work knowing that you may never read these words, yet believing, just the same.
Amen. I believe in believing in something greater than oneself.
There are figures beyond the shop window.
It is time. SLQ
Woolf can be contacted through his website www.nquentinwoolf.com