Monthly Archives: May 2023

Reader, I Am that Writer

Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell*, wrote, “Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she [Charlotte Bronte] felt that she had anything to add to that portion of the story which was already written.” When she couldn’t write, she couldn’t write. She didn’t make excuses or feel any remorse. She waited until inspiration returned. As Charlotte herself put it in a letter: “When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to awaken in them, which

Portrait by George Richmond
(1850, chalk on paper)

becomes their master — which will have its own way — putting out of you all behest but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new-molding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully-elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.” And, “When the mood leaves me (it has left me now, without vouchsafing so much as a word or a message when it will return) I put by the MS. and wait till it comes back again.”

Contrast this with Anthony Trollope who, having a servant call him at five a.m. each morning and fortifying himself with a pot of coffee, wrote exactly 2,500 words before heading off to an executive position in the British postal service. He knocked off close to a hundred books with this routine, leaving some unpublished in his desk drawer for his progeny to earn money from.

Tubercular Charlotte, on the other hand, had a big house to run, full of sisters, a nogoodnick brother and a clerical widowed father who left the daily management of everything to his oldest child Charlotte, who buried all of her sisters and brother, though the reverend Brontë (ne´ Brunty) outlived her by many years. He

Portrait of Anthony Trollope, by Napoleon Sarony

denied her the right to marry until she was in her mid-thirties, and her husband finished her off by promptly getting her pregnant and not looking after her generally.

What’s the moral of this comparison? I’d say it’s that there is no right way to write. There’s something to be said for sitting down every day and churning out X number of words. You will at least get something done. If you have to make a living by your writing, that’s probably the best, really the only way, to go. Some of the pulp fiction writers of the early twentieth century could turn out as many as 10,000 words a day, sometimes working on different stories at the same time on different typewriters. John O’Hara, a very successful commercial non-genre writer, produced a single novel each year like clockwork which he mailed, without making a carbon copy, to his publisher by regular post, trusting its delivery to the fates.

But who makes a living by writing anymore, especially fiction writers? Kurt Vonnegut said he was the last of that breed, though I think he had in mind the short story market, places like the Saturday Evening Post which paid handsomely and published several stories in each issue. In those days the New York Daily News published a short story in each issue, and smalltown weeklies did the same. Pulp-fiction novels did a brisk business off newsstands and the books racks at bus and airline terminals. I made some money myself writing such, back before those publishers went bankrupt or were gobbled up by bigger publishers, their product gussied up for bookstore and library sales. My idea was that I could write schlock most days to pay the rent and continue to write literary short stories as well. It beat sitting at a desk in an office building from nine to five.

Unfortunately – or perhaps not – those mass-market publishers of second-tier novels all went under. “Unfortunately” because they constituted a kind of minor league for the more respectable outfits on publishers row, a place where a new writer could exercise their talent, such as it be, and make some money doing so. Not many newspapers were publishing any kind of fiction in those days, unlike in the 19th century when all them did, serializing the work of long-forgotten authors alongside that of Mark Twain and Herman Melville. I got paid $900 advance against royalties for my first science fiction book by a publisher that turned out more than 300 titles a year out of its office on Park Avenue. I received $1000 for my second by another, somewhat classier outfit just up the avenue. That was good money at the time, three or four months rent. With a roommate, I figured I could turn out four of those a year and still have time to write short stories, which I had just begun to publish.

There was also the heady experience of being published in book form. There’s nothing like walking into a bookstore and seeing your work sitting on a shelf alongside that of famous authors (Heinlein, Hubert, Hubschman). I knew what I was churning out at the rate of 2,000 words a day was not “literature”or even genre fiction of the same order as those established authors. I had done freelance copy-editing for both of my publishers before I decided I could produce material at least as good as those read-and-toss diversions for long bus rides that they were turning out. And my two novels did do well. A successful sale at one of those houses was 30,000 copies, and I was offered a contract for a second book based on the sales on my first. The second novel must have done pretty well too because it was published in the UK and Australia without my being informed and without my ever seeing another penny in royalties.

By the time I completed a third science fiction book the fun was over. One publisher decided to concentrate on pornography (always its principle product, though not in the division that published my books) and the other was bought out and began concentrating on romance fiction. I was writing well enough at that point to get a well-established literary agent to flog my novel for me, but the responses he received from the mainline publishers were negative, sometimes citing that they were in the market for more high-tech stuff. Mine was definitely not high-tech.

Would Trollope have written better if he had written less? Could Brontë have written more Jane Eyres if she had been more “disciplined” (and had healthy lungs)? It’s a moot point. Anthony Trollope was his mother’s, the author Francis Trollope’s, son. Writing for him was a job to be approached like any other endeavor, with regularity and assiduousness. He applied the same industry and routine to his fiction writing as he did to his high-level position in the civil service. He was not the sort to wait for “inspiration.” A novel was a task. You set a goal and you got on with it. And if you had the talent and the imagination he had that approach worked. His unconscious mind must have been working out the plots of those novels even as he slept or reading reports on the state of rural post offices in the wilds of Scotland. My guess is he would have written a different kind of novel had he taken more time, maybe better, maybe not. But Charlotte Brontë’s observation that “an influence seems to awaken in [an author], which becomes their master — which will have its own way — putting out of you all behest but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new-molding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully-elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones,” is universal. At least that’s how it works for the best authors, even when they are writing just to please an audience and make some money.

* To read my full review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, go to Gowanus Books.