19 Oct Why writers need to fail to succeed
When I heard that Richard Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for his novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I whooped and did a little dance.
Since he was shortlisted I’ve been hoping that he’d beat the odds to become the third Australian writer to win this prestigious literary prize. To hear that he’d done it, in his usual flamboyant style, made my day.
I haven’t read his latest work but his third novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, is one of my top ten favourites. It has an extraordinary voice and takes you on a watery journey into the darkest places of the convict system with the dizzying heights of language. The Guardian described it as ‘one of the most fatiguingly inventive novels to have been published in recent years.’
It doesn’t have a normal plot. It’s baffling. It’s over the top. And it’s wonderful.
This is what literature should be. It should take us into the hard, thorny places and then blast us open to the gods. Break us, test us, shake us and tease us.
But to get there, to get our story truly as we want it on the page can be incredibly hard and the journey, long The pay is abysmal and only seems to be getting worse. In the past few weeks, I admit, I’ve slumped into a ‘what’s the point’ of it all.
I’m sure Richard Flanagan has been there, too. In fact, I know he has. When he received the prize he said that he did four versions of the novel over 12 years. He was close to throwing it all in – and trying to get a job down the mines.
It often takes several books for writers to work out their voice. And a few more to hit the jackpot. Some never do, but they still write. I hope I’ll always be one of them.
And yesterday was a red letter day for me, too, as I received 10 copies of the new edition of The Pagoda Tree. It’s been republished in B-format. This means a smaller, cheaper version of my novel will be on sale in November. (At $20 a perfect stocking filler, don’t you think?)
B-formats used to happen as a matter of course but these days they don’t. Of course, I’m delighted that the book gets another run. But will it pay my mortgage? No, of course not.
The economies of scale with writing literary fiction – in fact any genre of fiction – don’t add up. But am I writing another novel? Yes.
So what I want to say is… with writing or any artistic pursuit it helps to redefine what it means to fail and what it means to succeed. The prizes are what we dream of. The film rights are what we wish for. Yet really it’s about writing a story that you can be proud of, that you want to share and that generates its own life with or without you.
As the wise Indian writer, Annie Zaidi said to me, ‘Books have their own journey, too. Trust that.’