‘It’s the taking part that counts’ says the Olympic motto, but all we seem to see and hear is regret about missed medals, or even (amazingly) about the bitter disappointment of getting silver instead of gold.
It’s a similar story with writing. ‘So, how are the books doing?’ people ask. Is it enough to say you have finished a new novel, or have just got one published and that readers are enjoying it? No. We long to say we have a top agent, publisher or film company sniffing at our heels, or that we are in the bestseller lists (or the Amazon top 100 at least), or that we have recently won one of the prestigious literary prizes. But usually we can’t. So, somehow, despite all the effort of writing the damn thing, all the satisfaction of finishing and getting a good book out there, we writers somehow end up feeling disappointed.
Yet, clearly not everyone can write a bestseller every time. Not everyone can write a bestseller full stop. But then not everyone can write a readable book at all. It sounds easy – if you haven’t tried it. ‘Oh yes, I’d write a novel if I had time’ people sometimes (clearly unaware of the danger they are in) remark airily to writers. But it takes grit and determination, inspiration and a considerable amount of luck to write a novel, let alone a really good one. It is certainly not plain sailing (as British yachtsman Ben Ainslie is finding today as he tries to secure his apparently ‘certain’ gold in the Open 49er class).
So why has the ‘winning’ (and not the taking part) suddenly become so important? In some countries just being a writer is a cause for some acclaim. And how nice that is! Because writing isn’t a competition, it is a personal, private endeavour. The truth is that, despite all the judging and criticism that goes on, you simply can’t compare one book with another. Not with any real objectivity at least. They are all completely different, they appeal to different audiences, at different times, in different moods. We all have books on our shelves that we enjoyed in the past that we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole now. In my teens I loved The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – I can barely get past the first page nowadays. And yet Great Expectations, which I utterly loathed at school, has (rather appropriately for this post) seen me through a recent illness with total absorption and delight.
I know people crave success (and financial reward) and there is nothing wrong with striving for it, but, as with the Olympics, there are only so many places on the podium. We should try to be content with our capacity to take part, and celebrate even the small achievements. We writers are doing a great thing. We are providing entertainment, escape, excitement, learning, humour and a myriad of other wonderful things to our readers – what more acclaim do we really need?
My favourite book as a teen was also The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse, but as you say our tastes change. I am just finishing the first draft of my first novel. I am so excited and exhilarated by the creative process that I want to share my news with others, but they all say – ‘will you try and get it published?’ I want to talk about what an exciting journey it is, but nobody wants to hear that. Good job there are other writers out there we can talk to. I am so thankful to @JPeitch for starting me on this journey and blogs like yours.
Well said; I couldn’t agree more! As well as the emphasis on winning, another trend now is to say Bradley Wiggins is “The greatest-ever British Olympian”; or Michael Phelps is “The greatest Olympian of all-time”. How ludicrous! Just as with novels/novelists, how can you compare the different olympic events?
Your post, Helen, was a delight to read! I’ve always been an avid reader yet, since writing a memoir, my respect for authors is now greater, beyond their stories. I’ve taken to writing reviews of books I’ve ‘discovered’ via Twitter/FB, not the usual best sellers that I’ve read in the past. There are so many wonderful authors in a variety of genres. It has become important to me that I write my non-professional reviews in a way that honors an author’s ‘blood, sweat & tears.’ I now have a slew of ‘top shelves’ in my bookcase, a huge podium, room for all the books that I enjoy.
Thanks, I’m so glad you liked the post. I love the concept of a podium shelf!