Monday Motivation: The truest joy of creation
Here’s a thing: in our bookshop in Wigtown, south Galloway, we have, at a rough estimate, some five thousand books. They’re all second-hand, of course – and they fall into a wide variety of categories. Three shelves are marked “Butterflies and Moths”, there are two entire shelves devoted to British prime ministers, a large box contains nothing but dog-eared Dennis Wheatley (remember him? I doubt it) novels. Another section features gruesome accounts of a peculiarly British institution: serial killers who insist on disposing of their victims’ bodies under the floorboards, buried beneath the leeks in the garden, or walled up behind the paneling in their parlours.
The fiction shelves are crammed with books with odd and sometimes charming titles, of which this is a small but random sampling:
The Daft Days, by Neil Munroe; The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Vare; The Soldier and the Gentlewoman by Hilda Vaughn; All for a Scrap of Paper by Joseph Hocking; The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman…
And so on and so on.
All of those I’ve quoted were published before the Second World War. Some were enormously popular. Joseph Hocking, for instance, published a hundred books that were well received and sold well; Weyman was greatly admired by Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde…
Where are they now?
Well, Mr G can shed some light on these and the myriad of others. Some fell immediately after their deaths into a limbo from which they have never emerged. But some have been rediscovered and republished. The Maker of Heavenly Trousers, for instance, was republished in 2012 as a Penguin Modern Classic.
There’s no easy way of establishing how many novels in English are published every year – but attempts have been made, and it’s probably fair to say that they number at least 100 000 a year. And as the self-publishing revolution gathers steam, so that number has probably already been greatly exceeded.
So is it any wonder that writers from the 1920s and ‘30s have been largely forgotten? The fact is, writers of the eighties and nineties have been largely forgotten. And even more depressing, most of the books published now will likewise very soon join most of the others on the remaindered shelves of history.
And yet, every book on our shelves – every one of the 100 000+ novels being published this year – is the product of applied and patient dedication. It takes sometimes years of diligent labour* to produce the first draft, often extensive revisions and inevitably the final result falls short of its author’s initial vision.
So the question these observations provokes is: should we despair – or celebrate the sheer ephemerality of our immortal works?
I guess that if your intention is to create what politicians have taken to calling “a legacy”, then the almost certain fate of your creations is cause for despair. Rather build a pyramid, or start a war, if you wish your name to be remembered.
But if your intention is to revel in the exercise of your imagination within the strictures imposed by the “rules” and conventions of story-telling, then who cares what the long term fate of your novels is?
Of course you want them to be read, if only to judge the success of all the dozens of artful stratagems you deployed through the course of each of them, the cunning character studies, the well-timed surprises, the twists, the turns, the triumphant climaxes in which you so masterfully gathered together all the threads of your story and whipped them together into a deeply satisfying resolution…
But every one of those long-dead writers, whose works surround me in this little world of The Open Book in Wigtown, would, I have no doubt, agree that it’s in the writing that we all derive the truest joy of creation.
*Not always. Edgar Wallace, well represented on our shelves, once dictated a pot-boiler over the course of a long weekend. Wikipedia reports that he was so prolific “that one of his publishers claimed that a quarter of all books in England were written by him.”
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Life is full of stories‘
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