By Carol Lefevre
'No man is an island,' wrote the poet Donne. And yet which man or woman is more island-like than the novelist? Hunkered down in an invisible world of their own devising (a world that does not, and may never, register on any map) at the mercy of eroding winds and lashing tides, appearing to endure but in truth fragile, a shore against which all weathers beat with the utmost indifference.
Don't read on if you are seeking a positive spin with which to navigate your own dangerous reefs and feelings of islandness. The written world is awash with instances of how the art of writing beats up its practitioners, but they invariably end by idealising the act of writing as its own reward – I've written a few of them myself. And now, after almost two decades of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair (years that have included what is generally judged to be success, if success can be measured by book launches, favourable reviews, prizes, and modest sales) days and weeks and months arrive in which the compass one set out with no longer reads true: bearings have been lost.
The map, once so crisp and clear, no longer resembles the territory. On the Beaufort scale, one has hit Force 7. The sea heaps up; foam from breaking waves is blown into streaks along wind direction and there is a moderate amount of airborne spray. On land, whole trees are in motion. Effort is needed to walk against the wind. This is when the suck and pull of self-doubt, always constant, makes a bid for control of the prevailing wind and tides.
Maybe this has always been the way of things for those who work entirely out of their own heads, though I can testify only for myself. I recognise that much of my sense of living at the end-times of the thing I love stems from the turmoil in publishing, which has been on the back foot now since well before I launched my first novel. No doubt about it, my timing has been poor; had I known what storms lay ahead I might have made greater strides back in the days when I worked in a newsroom and would stagger home on Friday afternoons carrying a borrowed typewriter.
A couple of years back, one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, Joanna Kavenna, wrote eloquently on the 'death of the author' and on the parallel irony of the prevalence of creative writing programs in which 'a generation of writers (which barely gets paid or published) teaches a new generation of writers (which will barely get paid or published).' Kavenna described teaching on such courses as 'a relief from penury, from waiting on the decisions of penurious publishers.' Most writers I know who teach would not disagree with her.
A compelling essay, Escape from Stockholm: An Epic Publishing Saga by Judith Tarr briefly revisits the days when a writer's agent worried about money, their publisher worried about production, promotion, and distribution, leaving the author to concentrate on getting the next book written. Although Tarr argues this system bred a crippling dependence in authors so that they were easy to manipulate, at least back then they had time to do what they do best. But as publishing responded to the changes wrought by the Internet, the responsibility for promoting books has shifted more and more onto authors. With the arrival of social media it has accelerated, and I have no doubt it is to the writer's detriment.
It is not only the hours gobbled up by Twitter and Facebook that are debilitating but the false reality they promote as truth. Where once it was the review columns of the weekend papers that tormented writers (with guarded reviews of their books, or unstinting praise of other people's books) now we must daily navigate a relentless flow of self-promotion and narcissistic postings. A writer who happens to be battling high waves with overhanging crests, or a white sea in which waves tumble, a writer caught in a gale in which airborne spray reduces visibility may feel trees being snapped, or even uprooted. At Force 10 on the Beaufort scale, structural damage is probable.
Force 12 produces huge waves. The sea is completely white with foam and the air is opaque with driving spray. There will be severe and widespread damage to vegetation and structures; debris and unsecured objects are hurled about.
This violence and destruction seems far from the calm in which I first took up a pen and began to write. Surrounded then by flat seas, with smoke rising vertically or perhaps drifting in light air to indicate wind direction, I filled notebooks and box files and suitcases with words. I was in no great hurry, having designated the first ten years as my apprenticeship. Sometimes leaves would rustle and I would feel the wind on my skin; if there were waves, their crests were glassy and they did not break. There was time to read and re-read great writers.
During the apprenticeship years I took temporary, often low-paid work, refusing to become embroiled in the exhausting workplace politics that plague most employees in permanent jobs. Sometimes I struck a placement where people were good and kind and the work congenial: I was a secretary for a few months at a tiny and delightful primary school where the children would come to me each morning with lunch orders, or to have their names written in the Late Book. When the job was advertised I was urged to apply, but although sorely tempted I remained resolute. The children presented me with a pen as a leaving present; there were tears. But I went home to my notebooks and my box files of words and felt content with my freedom, until the next temporary job came along.
Fortunately, I did not have to feed my family on these meagre earnings. It wasn't so much about money as about time, and not becoming a pawn in other people's games; in an entirely new way now, it still is. For everyone involved in print publishing is pushed to the edge. Where once a writer would be given scrupulous feedback on the manuscript of a new novel, nowadays they are likely to open an email to find a 'reader's report' in which their name is misspelled and the title of their novel persistently misquoted. Nothing can be relied upon. Most worrying of all is the prospect of the gradual loss of high-level editing skills, as publishers pump out what they know will sell to readers who couldn't care less about the flow of sentences or the careful placement of commas.
Never have writers seemed more like islands. While the ocean of online publishing appears limitless there are fewer safe havens for literary writers, and almost no chance of being nurtured by a publisher while they build a career, unless by some miracle the figures stack up. Meanwhile they must Facebook and Tweet and push and shove their wares to the front in the online marketplace, but when do they write? How are they to concentrate with their shortened attention spans? What can be done, now that the genie is out of the bottle?
Once again I can only say what I might do. On a good day, I will stand firm, I will draw on the ages-old strengths of islands everywhere: mystery, sovereignty, persistence. 'A writer must stand on the rock of their own self-confidence,' said Janet Frame, advice that has never been more relevant than in these times that try a writer's soul. When the Beaufort scale is rising I may hope and pray for fairer weather tomorrow, for a visit by whales or a murmuration of starlings, a moment of passing comfort, though not companionship. For no companionship is possible in the working life of a novelist: when I think of a community of writers I visualise something like Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, with its 365 islands, one for every day of the year, each of them surrounded by steel-grey water.
I will continue to believe for a while longer in the landscape of traditional publishing, but if a Force 12 hurricane should finally sweep it away I will turn to the handmade book, the private printing press; I will think of Virginia Woolf declaring herself the luckiest woman in England because she could write and publish whatever she liked. With a limited print run I could track every copy. I could keep them all on the island in a secret vault. Readers would no longer be able to underline passages or write comments in the margins; critics would not misspell my name, or the names of my characters, or misquote the title. Reading groups could not tear apart years of painstaking effort following a skimming read, and a two-hour get together with wine and finger food.
I said there would be no positive spin, but perhaps after all I have found one. The habit of searching out form works at a subliminal level, or else that is just what writing does. It wades into the seething waters. It rides out even a Force 12 gale. It restores a writer to their eternal islandness, putting them beyond the reach of readers and their indifference, their criticism; it puts them beyond even their pleasure.
Carol Lefevre's first novel, Nights in the Asylum, Picador (UK) and Vintage (Australia) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and won the 2008 Nita B. Kibble Award for Women Writers. If You Were Mine was published by Vintage in 2008, and a non-fiction title, Quiet City: Walking in West Terrace Cemetery has just been published by Wakefield Press (Australia).
She is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and the 2016 recipient of the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship. Visit her website for further information at www.carollefevre.com