Monday, June 21, 2004

Bitter coincidence

Last Friday I wrote a piece about copyright problems (see immediately below), and I ended up by pointing out that a writing 'career' can all too easily lead to anger, bitterness, and frustration. By pure coincidence, the next day's Financial Times featured an article by Sathnam Sanghera which dealt extensively with the psychological and physiological complications which can arise from a state of bitterness. (I would normally have provided a direct link to this article, but you have to register on the FT site, and frankly it's so much goddamn trouble -- I've just tried -- that it isn't worth the effort. But the article is on there somewhere and you can get to the FT home page here if you really want to.)

Sanghera had noted, during four years of interviewing for the FT, that although he had often come across well-known people who had every right to feel bitter, he had never once found that they were. Nick Leeson, for instance, who had been banged up in jail for over four years, and had colon cancer as well, was not bitter at all.

So when Sanghera wanted to write an article about bitterness, he was hard put to find anyone in the public eye who suffered from this condition. But then -- of course! -- he turned to the book world, and he found, not surprisingly, that bitter authors are not too difficult to stumble across.

Take Leon Arden, for instance. In 1981 Leon wrote a novel called One Fine Day. It told the story of a man who finds himself living the same day over and over again. The movie companies were interested, and Disney bought the film rights. But while Disney was still thinking about how to handle the project, Columbia Pictures brought out a film about -- er -- a man who finds himself living the same day over and over again. Called Groundhog Day. And it was, as you may recall, quite a nice little hit. Grossed $70m.

So, Arden sued. As you would expect. For $15m. And lost. As you would expect. 'I can appreciate Arden's frustration,' said the Judge. 'However, ideas are not copyrightable.'

Is Arden bitter? 'Oh Christ, yes, I'm bitter.' And he goes on, at some length. As does Sanghera, who comments that bitterness is 'more unrelenting than hate, more painful than unhappiness, more paralysing than depression.' It is 'one of the worst things that can happen to you.' And for good measure, a medical expert on the psychological effects of bitterness adds, 'It is impossible to be happy or healthy while you carry a grudge.'

The following day, the Sunday Times carried an interview with Colin Wilson. The name won't mean much to you unless you are (a) over 60, and (b) English, but in the late 1950s Colin Wilson was as famous in England as a writer can possibly get. In fact, more famous than you can imagine, because in those days there were far fewer media to read, view and listen to. Everybody read and watched the same things. So the interviewer, Jasper Gerard, rightly points out that 'it is inconceivable that a writer could now acquire similar celebrity.'

Wilson's fame soon faded from that astonishing peak, for a variety of reasons, but since his debut he has written over 100 books and has just produced his autobiography. And, as Gerard points out, he is angry, bitter and depressed. He is particularly bitter about being shunned by the literary establishment; the English, apparently, refuse to take men of ideas seriously.

I hope that by now you have got the message that even a 'successful' writer can have a pretty grim time. But wait. There is more.

Today's book2book provides a link to an article in The Independent by Simon Trewin, who is an agent at Curtis Brown. Trewin describes, in pretty blunt terms, the painful truth about being a young (or new) writer in today's publishing. 'It is a sobering thought,' he says, 'that the majority of debut novels will be published to deafening silence.'

If the publisher wants to sign you up, you are treated like a celebrity. At least until the sales figures come in. 'When I signed my publishing deal,' says one author bitterly (Trewin's adverb), 'it was all champagne and lunch, but when they dropped me it was by email to my agent.... That hurt like crazy.' A promising career, concludes Trewin, 'can be over before it starts.'

Listen, my friends. I have said it before and I say it again. Think hard before you invest the huge amount of time and effort which is involved in writing a novel. And think hard before you wish for a career as a writer. Who knows, your wish might come true. And then where would you be?


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