One of London’s renowned literary agents, Jonny Geller, gave a TED Talk this month in Oxford called What Makes A Bestseller? I know this because we’re Facebook friends and he posted the link. I bet the talk was excellent. Jonny is an engaging, articulate, experienced agent with a lot of wisdom and charm.
The comments he received on his page were very positive. Dozens of writers, wishing their novels to climb the sales ladders and become New York Times or Sunday Times bestsellers, were full of gratitude toward Jonny, who represents a number of well-known successes, and is part of the powerful agency, Curtis Brown, which even runs a writing school for hopeful authors. I mean, if you want to be a writer, why wouldn’t you listen to the talk, sign up for the course, and do your best to “make a bestseller?”
You think you know where this is going to go, don’t you? You think I am going to lament the dreadful quality of bestsellers or sigh about the commercialisation of the noble pursuit of the creative artist. Not at all. I don’t know what books are bestsellers most of the time and I don’t think there is anything noble about being a writer. We are often solitary, self-involved people whose engagement in the world is purely for the purpose of making out own voices heard. Or is that just me on a bad day?
Anyway, I congratulated Jonny on being asked to give a TED talk—what an honour that is, for a start. I can imagine the energy he brought into the room and his excellent advice. If he speaks about writing itself, as opposed to hitting the charts, he will have imparted some good knowledge. But I am assuming he talked about what makes a bestseller, not writing well. These things are not necessarily the same.
I am one of those odd, possibly rare authors who think that aiming for a bestseller list is the opposite of what I should be doing. The part of me that wants to make my own voice louder is not the part of me that writes beautifully. The amplification of my voice does not lend it any greater quality for all its volume. My self-involvement, which is somewhat necessary at times if only to carve out the time to read and write, is my poorest quality. My cunning and desire to be seen as great detracts from any possibility of true greatness. To achieve what I want to achieve requires that I let go of the notion of achievement, itself.
T.S. Eliot’s great line in Ash Wednesday, “Teach us to care and not to care”
This is what you need to be a great writer.
So, if I want to make myself a worse writer I aim for the bestseller list. This is not to say that books on the bestseller lists are bad (there are some excellent titles on these lists) but that aiming for the listing is the mistake. Arriving there is fine. Not arriving there is also fine. Being a bestseller or not doesn’t make your book any better or worse. It’s just something that happens or doesn’t happen and trying to orchestrate the event will likely deaden your work, killing your relationship to the blank page. If you aim to be a bestseller you may elevate your status in the eyes of some, but it at what cost? It’s a Faustian bargain. I don’t know if it is always true, but it has felt true to me.
You wouldn’t think from how I blog, tweet, Facebook and engage in social media that I am devoted to this notion of ignoring sales figures and bestseller lists. Maybe you think I’m just envious. I haven’t appeared on any bestseller list, let alone the NYT, since Daniel Isn’t Talking and that was 2006. True, I do envy other writers. I can be outright jealous, in fact. But I am jealous of what they’ve written, not the result of what they’ve written. Attention to outcomes like sales rankings has a deleterious effect on my writing. The part of my mind that could potentially be wowed by someone’s career status is exactly the part of my mind I want not to feed.
So how do I judge whether I like my own work? Whether it is any good? I have one simple test. Would I be jealous if someone else had written it? If the answer is yes, it’s good. If the answer is no, I don’t show it to anyone. It’s a bad novel. Or, maybe it isn’t a not a “bad novel” but one that is unnecessary.
Does the world need another “good-enough” book? We are currently publishing more books than it is possible to have read by the shrinking market of readers. Nobody needs my competent novel, my novel with the requisite inciting incident and subplots and character depth, but no urgency. That novel is just in the way of the novel I ought to be working on, which has an integrity and freshness and authenticity that takes me by surprise even as I type it out, delivering it onto the page with all the mess of a newborn baby, but one that has its own life and cry for attention.
Will it receive that attention? Who knows? It isn’t my job to think about such matters as I am writing. The point is that there is real value inside the pages of great books. There is life where once there was nothing. And while it will always be better to be read than not read, I am careful that no consideration of this matter imposes itself on the quiet elegance of the work of an author.
I would like only to write as Wendell Berry describes in his poem, Like Snow.
Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly.
leaving nothing out.
—Wendell Berry from his collection Leavings, (Counterpoint, 2009)
PS. Before posting this blog, I did listen to Jonny’s talk, which was excellent. And it is mostly about writing well, not selling well. I ought to have known he’d do the right thing. I suspect that it was the TED people who wanted the title How To Write A Bestseller. Such a title will always pull in a larger audience than How to Write A Good Book, but the latter should remain our goal.