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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Writing? Enjoyment? No Enjoyment, No, None.

Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/03/09 at 11:27 AM

My, but Colm Tóibín is a grumpy old soul.  Here he is being interviewed by The Manchester Review.  I focus on the interview’s choicer moments:

Interviewer: Could you describe the experience of writing in your early years, compared to how it feels to write now? Is there a difference? Did you get a powerful rush of good feeling from writing good passages then, or a rush of pleasure from getting praise then? Do you get less of a rush now from success or praise? Or perhaps it’s the other way round?

Tóibín: Oh there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me. I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it. I don’t read reviews now.

Interviewer:  Which of your books did you most enjoy writing?

Tóibín: No enjoyment. No, none.

Interviewer: What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?

Tóibín: The money. I never knew there would be money. It is such a surprise. And I like not having to leave the house in the morning. Yes, the money.

Interviewer:  Is there nothing else you enjoy about your life as a writer?

Tóibín:  It is not for enjoyment. It has nothing to do with enjoyment. I like selling foreign rights, but that feeling would last no longer than 20 minutes.

I particularly like the notion that if he did happen to start enjoying himself then he ‘would disapprove’ of the enjoyment.  I wonder if he’s also available for children’s parties?

The Guardian followed up the story by asking nine writers whether they enjoyed writing.  You can read their answers here (including John Banville’s splendid exaggeration of the importance of his own profession over the discovery of fire, Agriculture, the Wheel, Medicine etc: ‘Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.’)

Me I love the writing part of writing, I enjoy the revising part considerably less (howsoever necessary it is), and I dislike the actual publication bit, the reading reviews and so on, even more.  Plus I’m here to tell you all: the money aint so good.  If money is your sole aim, you may want to think of a different career.


My favorite, favorite part is “I like selling foreign rights”.  That sentence could be unpacked into paragraphs.  Like, yes he likes money, but mere domestic money just doesn’t quite do it.  It has to be exotic foreign money.  Or maybe it’s just the feeling that he’s improving Ireland’s balance of trade.  Or suckering foreigners?  And he really gets off on the perversity of selling rights.  The object petit a would only last ten minutes instead of twenty without the extra frisson of putting rights into the market.  (Yes, I know that “selling foreign rights” functions as shorthand for “doing well in the market”, but it’s still funny.)

I’ve written poetry for—good god, almost a decade now, with years-long gaps—and gone from standard novice-bad to almost mediocre.  And it’s not really enjoyable.  Not the writing part, in which the poem never communicates what I want it to.  Not the transmission-to-others part, in which I generally have to read the thing, which I hate to do, or watch people read it in groups 2/3 of the members of which will not understand it no matter how plain I think it is.  Even the rare comments in which someone says it’s good aren’t really worth all the work of writing the damned things, because like most middle-class people I’ve been socialized to think that doing things for praise is wrong.  I’ve pretty much settled on writing-as-community-building.

By on 03/03/09 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is slightly disturbing that John Banville thinks that civilization is responsible for the sentence.  The Ice Age according to Banville: “Mammoth.  Food.  Cold.  Fire.”

By on 03/03/09 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I relate to Tóibín, especially when I’m being graded.

By on 03/03/09 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The worst thing about writing is that it never gets easier.  The more you write, the harder it gets.

The Renaissance scholar Margreta de Grazia once told us at Penn that graduate students often write worse than undergrads because they second they’ve been told, “Good job!” by getting accepted into a program, the standards of goodness suddenly change (internally and externally). 

So if you’re a good writer, you’re an unhappy writer.  The second something feels easy in writing, you might as well stop doing it.  This is true in sports, as well, but at least there’s an immediate pleasure in the exertion of the body, in outwitting an opponent, etc. 

Behind it all, of course, are crazy cultural assumptions about the dangers of pleasure and ease.  But I can sympathize with the groans and anxiety produced the second I say to my class, “We’ll be starting an essay on _________ this week.”

I have a soft spot for Peter Elbow’s ideas about making writing enjoyable by cutting out all concern for others or an audience until the very last minute.  Write for yourself, solve your own problems, get that pleasure, and then worry about what others might think (which includes spelling, grammar, diction, paragraphing, etc.).

But it took me six years to write a dissertation because I was afraid to write.

By on 03/03/09 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If the last major project you wrote was a dissertation, Luther, you are bound to feel that way, but it actually does get easier.  You reach a point where writer’s block is not an issue, and you can simply sit down to do the hard work of writing without all the extra psychological baggage that make writing in graduate school so difficult.  It’s not the writing itself that’s hard, it’s the pressure under which the writing is done. 

At some point you will also have figured out some workable solutions to your own particular writing problems.

None of this is applicable to poetry, of course.  That does get harder rather than easier.  Few people figure out any workable solution at all.

By on 03/03/09 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything.”

I still can’t believe that fancy man Banville let those two particular sentences (with the godly option of saying “Anything” before him, he said *this*) out of his notebook.

By Steven Augustine on 03/04/09 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Banville’s being disingenuous. With the exception of his pseudonymous crime fiction, it seems he regards Beckett’s sentences as civilisation’s greatest invention. He’s got more use from them than I have the wheel, fire, etc.

And given Tóibín’s take on his work, I’ve no hesitation in dipping below the belt to say that Wikipedia should disabuse The Manchester Review journalist of the notion that old misery guts is ‘formidably handsome.’

By on 03/06/09 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

He may be handsome below the belt; I wouldn’t want to speculate.  But you’re right, Anthony; above the neck he’s got a great face for radio.

By Adam Roberts on 03/06/09 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

God, I love the comments. Q: British people. Meaner than average?

By on 03/07/09 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You mean global average?

By Adam Roberts on 03/08/09 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The CIA World Factbook ought to list nations’ meanness alongside GDP and proportion of arable land.

I’ve no idea if us British would top the spite table in general, but if the rankings were based solely on invective directed at humourless, not-quite-so-fine-as-they-think novelists, we’re in with a fighting chance. Certainly we’d be higher than the French.

I’m off to fashion voodoo dolls of Rushdie and the cast of the Granta ‘Best Of’ lists.

By on 03/08/09 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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