On Giving Up the Fiction Ghost

Declan Burke’s post this morning at Crime Always Pays is a real heartbreaker, and while I hope (as I suspect many do) that he will change his mind, there is a sense of resoluteness about his decision to put aside fiction writing that makes me think it will stick. He has two books out on submission, and it would be great to see either (or both) published, but then reality sets in:

That’s the natural way of things, but lately I’ve started to hear a

little voice in the back of my head suggesting that it might not be the

best thing for me right now were either book to be published. That’s

because, barring a miracle, what will happen is this: an offer will be

made that will amount, in practical terms, to no more than a couple of

months’ worth of mortgage payments. Following acceptance, edits and

rewrites will follow (a good thing, by the way, because I like both

stories and their characters, and I wouldn’t mind at all getting back

into the stories, especially if doing so is going to improve them).

Then the pre-publication promotion will begin, which is very

time-consuming; then the publication promotion; and then the

post-publication promotion. Most of this will be conducted via the web,

given that I am (a) not wealthy enough nor remunerated enough to do it

in person; (b) married with a small child, of whom I don’t see enough

of as it is; © a freelance journalist who works a minimum of 70 hours

per week at the job, and can’t afford to take time off, let alone spend

good mortgage money on hauling my ass around the world at a time when

house repossessions are starting to climb at an alarming rate back home.


It really is becoming as stark as that. I decided over the weekend,

after interviewing James Ellroy, that it is actually immoral of me to

steal time to write fiction when I could be writing freelance material

that will actually earn real money. And that’s not even factoring in

the time I steal away from my family on the ‘writing’, a catch-all word

which includes, these days, reading and blogging too. Someone who liked

my books asked me over the weekend, rather facetiously, how come I

haven’t sold a million books. I said, rather facetiously, that it was

because no one put a million dollars worth of advertising spend behind

them. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but there’s a significant

element of truth in that.

Burke”s story is far from unique; other writers I know, talented ones who by rights should have been published even 2 or 3 years ago, are chucking it in because the economic realities of publishing fiction clash against necessities like earning money, supporting families, and making sure there’s still even a smidgen of time to devote to, oh, rest and relaxation.

The Malthusian part of me wonders if it’s just the universe performing natural selection, but luckily that part of small, dwarfed by the more empathetic take that if you, as a writer, know exactly what your strengths and limitations are, and realize your own specific gifts aren’t wanted at this juncture in time, then that’s a damn shame.

Burke certainly seems to recognize where he stands:

Yes, I understand that making it in any business means making

sacrifices, but in this particular business, what ‘making sacrifices’

actually means is asking others to make sacrifices on your behalf.

Maybe if I was a genius I’d feel comfortable with that, or I simply

wouldn’t care. But I’m not. The books I write are (at best) an

enjoyable diversion, a pleasant waste of time. They’re not important

enough, vital enough or relevant enough to be worth anyone else’s

sacrifice, and while there was once a time when I was selfish and

ruthless enough to not care about the sacrifices I was asking others to

make on my behalf, that time is long gone, and good riddance.

All I know is, I hope one of those two books sells – but even if there’s a sale, economic realities may actually make this a worse outcome than if he doesn’t find any takers.