Illusions Regarding the Literary Life

brittainAs part of my current research on issues related to gender, genre, and the ‘novel of purpose’ (about which more eventually, when it takes on a clearer shape!) I asked our indefatigable Document Delivery staff to bring in a copy of Vera Brittain’s On Becoming a Writer (1947). It turns out to be in large part advice for aspiring authors, and I’ve been amused, reading it, by how familiar a lot of it sounds as well as how practical and discouraging Brittain is. I thought you might be amused as well, so here’s her list of “nine widely-held illusions regarding the literary life,” in her own words, along with some of her blunt recommendations for overcoming these “phantasies.”

#1: writing is easy because the materials are readily accessible

“This, the first illusion, probably leads more aspirants astray than all the rest put together,” Brittain notes; writing’s “very deceptive facility confronts the beginner with pitfalls which require practice and experience to be recognisable as such, and are therefore the more difficult to overcome.”

#2: because writing is so easy, it can be done successfully, without any special training or preparation, in odd minutes during the day

She acknowledges that “some remarkable books have been produced in this way, particularly by women, whose right to regard their literary work as a full-time job, free from those domestic trivia with which no male writer is expected to concern himself, still offers a fruitful topic for social and domestic controversy.” As a general rule, though, she advises writers with other jobs to “work out a careful time-table” that is both “regularand regularly respected” even though “it may involve defying plaintive accusations of unsociability” as well as giving up “hiking, boating, golf, or tennis.”

#3: books and articles can only be written when the author is “in the mood”

“An author who waits for the right ‘mood’ will soon find that ‘moods’ get fewer and fewer until they cease altogether,” she notes; with Trollope-like pragmatism, she explains that “the only way to write is to write” and recommends (again) a firm schedule as well as taking every precaution to remove and guard against interruptions and distractions. When you do have to stop, do it “at some point where it is easy to begin again tomorrow.” “I have found myself,” she confesses, “almost unconsciously doing ‘little jobs’ for an hour or two in order to postpone the bad moment of beginning again”—something too many of us can probably sympathize with—but this trick can help you pick up again “with enthusiasm.”

#4: the “artistic temperament,” and its external expression in terms of peculiar manners, eccentric clothes, and literary “haunts,” are part of the essential make-up of a writer

Brittain has no time for cultivated eccentricity. She goes through a pretty funny roster of writers who “are seldom identifiable as authors at all”: H. G. Wells, for instance, “looked like a genial but peppery bank clerk,” while “for years I myself have resembled any and every shorthand typist.” It doesn’t do the aspiring writer any good to go without haircuts or lead “the literary life”: “there is only one way of becoming a first-rate writer, and that is by hard, persistent, and mainly solitary work.” (Sigh.)

#5: the conviction of many authors that each one’s extreme sensitiveness and the pain it causes is peculiar to himself

She also has no patience for special snowflakes. Sensitivity is indeed, she says, “very frequent amongst authors,” but “the sooner a would-be writer stops being sorry for himself because he is sensitive, the quicker will his work and personality develop those robust qualities upon which achievement so largely depends.”

#6: the belief that sponsorship by some well-known author is a short cut to success

Sorry: it’s still the writing itself that matters. “The most that an author-sponsor can do is to bring the book to the notice of the public,” but if it’s no good, “the introduction is valueless.” What can be valuable is the kind of “frank, uncompromising” feedback she was fortunate enough to receive from “an established and much-respected author” (whom we know from Testament of Youth was Rose Macaulay): “I did not enjoy receiving her sometimes derisive criticisms,” she admits, “but I had enough common sense to accept them.”

#7: that a manuscript by an unknown author will be disregarded unless he is introduced by somebody to whom the publisher dare not be indifferent

Sorry: a publisher’s indifference (including failure to read the whole manuscript) is, once again, about the writing, not your connections: “influence alone, in spite of the widespread illusion to the contrary, has never yet placed a manuscript for anyone.” (Do we really think this is true now, never mind whether it was true then? Books do get published that seem extremely niche to have survived past the initial pitch, but they come out of visible literary coterieswhich then pay lots of attention to them.)

#8: the belief that the sales of his book will largely depend on the extent to which the publisher can be persuaded to advertise it

Brittain has quite a lot to say at the outset of this book about things like paper prices and book distribution in the post-war era, as well as about the effects of war-time circumstances on literary journalism and reviewing. Her conclusions about the value of advertising come from this context: books sold just as well “almost without advertising” during the war which she argues proves that “advertising is seldom, if ever, the reason for a large sale.” She goes on to cite Authors and the Book Trade by one Frank Swinnerton, in which apparently the case is also made that advertising is not worth much but that “talki.e. personal recommendation, discussion, and controversy” is “what really sells a book.” (That’s certainly true for a lot of us on Twitter!)

#9: that, with the publication of his first book, the author will leap—or has leapt—to fame and reputation

Not likely! In her own case, she notes that “the supposition that Testament of Youth was my first book has been voiced again and again. Actually it was my sixth”and, she later clarifies, she means her sixth published book, while it was the 20th book she’d written. Once again, it’s all about the hard, solitary work. Further, the author who believes his first book has “made his name” is, in most cases, deluded by selection bias, as for a while he is primarily engaging with “only those people … and those critics who are familiar with his work,” forgetting that to the vast majority he remains completely unknown. Especially if his debut was praised, this sets him up for disappointment over the reception of his second book!

woman-writing-1934Having cleared away these sad illusions, Brittain moves on in the next chapter (“First Essentials”) to offer some positive suggestions, though not without one more chastening reminder that your “desire for fame, wealth, and distinguished acquaintances does not in itself constitute a claim to literary success.” There really is something bracing about her Eeyore-like insistence that, while writing may well be worth the effort, it almost certainly won’t be fun, that it’s more likely than not that you aren’t very special or talented, and that the way forward is mostly drudgery. Would a book, not of this type (there are many such) but with this tone get published today? So farI haven’t read to the end yetit is certainly the antithesis of Elizabeth Gilbert’s irritating paean to half-assed creativity Big Magic, and a striking contrast to every other recent “how to write” book I’ve ever dipped into, which seem much more about inspiration than perspiration.

2 thoughts on “Illusions Regarding the Literary Life

  1. Stuart Danker July 14, 2021 / 8:13 pm

    I can relate to so many of these points, especially about the publication of the first book not automatically catapulting you to fame. Anyway, thanks for this post!

  2. JacquiWine July 15, 2021 / 4:33 am

    This is such a fascinating post, particularly in terms of Brittain’s rebuttals of each myth. (As an aside, I too was unaware that Brittain had written such a large body of work before the publication of Testament of Youth – it’s a shame that her other books are not as widely known. i’ll have to take a closer look.)

    Number 2 reminds me of some Shirley Jackson’s experiences when writing her early stories (as recounted in Ruth Franklin’s biography, A Rather Haunted Life). Jackson wrote The Lottery in a couple of hours in between domestic chores (childcare, making lunch etc.), and sent it off to her agent with minimal editing (possibly on the same day IIRC). As Brittain acknowledges, some excellent works can be written in snatches of time here and there, but it must be incredibly challenging to do so.

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