When I began writing ten years ago I thought that there was some natural process by which writing became published: you did it and then it would appear in print, rather like going through with a pregnancy and ending up with a baby. Now I know that there are as many ways of being a writer as there are writers, and the spectrum of publication stretches across vast areas of difference from having just a few readers to being a commercial bestseller. In between are writers’ groups, small presses, self and/or e-publication, blogs, subscription arrangements and now crowd-funding
Two particular writers on opposite ends of the spectrum of publication have been occupying my thoughts recently.
The first is my father-in-law Robert Hopewell who died at 91 years old just a couple of weeks ago. I knew that he wrote poems as part of his lifelong practice of Zen meditation, mindfulness, yoga and tai chi, and that they were connected to his work as a visual artist and wood carver. As far as I know he never attempted to publish or even share his writings very widely. He had occasionally showed a few poems to me but I couldn’t really receive them, being blinkered by the more literary, canonical poetry I taught in university classes. But after his death I had the chance to see all the writings together, copied into large sketch books, often decorated with abstract designs, and the sum of the poems in combination with his long life and steadfast practice of Buddhist detachment has become clear.
His poems are direct, unsophisticated, and unencumbered by the need to impress. He writes broadly in the tradition of Japanese haiku in short poems that are acts of observing and exercises in clarity of mind. The poems are as concerned with releasing experience as with capturing it.
For instance, here is a piece called “Practice Death Poem”:
Waking to the familiar
What a strange and wonderful thing
Dying to the familiar
What an adventure
One of the most significant aspects of the poems is the way in which the writer is completely unconcerned with the impression he makes: self-judgement has been more or less completely jettisoned and there is absolutely nothing to prove. And the real power of these poems is that there is no audience imagined, expected or addressed. The complete absence of the idea of publication has created the perfect conditions for significant statement: the value of this work is a result of its utter privacy.
But what a paradox! To never seek publication might guarantee the worth of a body of work but if it is never read, then what is the purpose of all that effort? Language is communication. You might argue that the point of private writing is self-expression but without another to hear or read the work, is the self really expressed at all?
This question takes me back to one of my great heroes, Emily Dickinson. Her poetry is now regarded as some of the best ever written but her work was not published in her lifetime and she made only a few abortive attempts to submit her work to the conventional women’s magazines of her day in mid-nineteenth century New England. Instead she included her poems in correspondence to friends and arranged her own method of production by sewing together collections of her poetry and storing them in a desk. Her poems were so advanced, complex, compressed and unconventional that it’s possible she preferred to keep them semi-private rather than to compromise and instead publish the sort of sentimental, regularly-rhymed verse that many women of her genteel social background did. Again, there is this intensification, and the authenticity that comes from turning away from the marketplace (I am aware of the theoretical naivety of these statements but I cannot always be a postmodernist!).
One of Dickinson’s most famous poems compares the publishing industry to slavery, stating that “publication is the auction of the mind of man”, but her work did eventually emerge into the light. The extent of her achievement was discovered after her death, fought over, published (sometimes in bowdlerized editions) and every generation since has found meaning in her work. Feminist poets and scholars in particular have read her with increasing understanding and admiration and she has inspired many poets to take up the challenge of her forensic, daring poetics. Without widespread publication and the dissemination of her extraordinary work this would not have been possible, but for Dickinson herself, wasn’t it better to remain unpublished in her lifetime, in the same way that my father-in-law’s poems gained their force from silence and unselfconsciousness? This goes against the grain of our success-oriented society and the gospel of celebrity.
The other writer I have been thinking about is most assuredly a success and has sold over a million books worldwide: this is Jessie Burton, whose novel The Miniaturist became a runaway bestseller in 2013. By chance I came across her tremendously interesting blog http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/blog/archives/02-2016 and was shocked to read about the breakdown she suffered after the enormous success of her book. I’m very happy to say that she has now recovered and her second novel, The Muse, is doing well. It’s plain that the trauma following the strain of sudden celebrity shook her to the core and she was severely afraid of never being able to write again.
To be writing, as Burton is now, for an established readership with specific expectations and a lot of money riding on it is the complete opposite of the other writers I’ve been describing and it poses the question of what writing is really for. I believe that each writer must decide what their definition of success really is. I think for Robert it was the direct expression of the truth as he saw it without the false distortions of the ego getting in the way, and for Dickinson it was about accurately witnessing the glory and terror of existence. Jessie Burton speaks, in a veiled way, about her next book being braver in content and it seems as though she has taken ownership of her position as a public writer and is intent upon using it well. For me, then, as I prepare to submit my novel to agents and publishers once again, I am aware that some sorts of commercial success are not always a wholly good thing, and that literary quality and meaningfulness is not solely measurable by reader numbers.
I’ll let Robert have the last word (about words!):