The year is turning down again towards the mid-winter deeps of darkness and celebration. The book-launch season is in full swing again, as it always is in spring and autumn. From now till Christmas the books will pour out and add to the walls and walls of paper stacked in bookshops the length and breadth of the country. The literary festival season never ends though, with LEAVES and the DUBLIN BOOK FESTIVAL both on the November horizon. By the end of January 2015 the next Kate O’Brien Weekend will be in the offing as the year takes off again.
And behind it all, there are writers, mostly eking out a living, jostling for space – even a little space – living in hope of acknowledgement and validation. That it comes for some is obvious. That it is slow for others is equally obvious. And that a few writers shimmer in the shade for the full course of their literary lives is a sure thing. Someone I worked with recently brought up this very subject. He put the general ignoring of his very brilliant work, his non-appearance at any festivals or literary gatherings, and his virtually invisible status (bar the usual solid and good reviews), down to the fact that he’s a multi-genre writer. He may be right. He is a playwright, poet and non-fiction writer. And yet I don’t think working in different genres is any reason for a writer’s invisibility or for their being ignored. I write poetry, short story, novels and essays, and whereas I’m not as well-known as I should be, given my output and constant engagement, methinks something else is at work here, something less savoury, the ancient, commonplace deadly virus known as Begrudgery and Envy. It is not a uniquely Irish quality either, because I’ve seen it operating between writers (and academic writers) in New York communities and in San Francisco communities. It’s there in Spain, in France, in Italy, in England. It’s everywhere, in fact. And too many writers pick it up and fail to be generous towards one another’s achievements.
I had an interesting encounter myself only last week. I bumped into a poet I had not met in a long time, and we exchanged a few civil words. What was he doing, I asked. He told me. I responded. Then he asked me if I was still ‘at the writing’, as he put it. I said I was, and told him about my recent novel “Where They Lie”, and that it had been published last May. His response baffled me, not because it’s certainly possible that all of us can live perfectly well without knowing anything much about what others publish, but because he simply shook his head and shrugged, as if to say Doesn’t ring any bells for me, couldn’t care less either . . . Then he went on to tell me that he no longer read novels. Ho hum, and so it goes. And off he went through the door, floating away on his own cushion of . . . what? Is it superiority? Envy?
But some writers are really churlish when it comes to the even minor success of others. If that had been me, the least I would have done was say ‘congratulations’, or ‘well done’ and ask how the book was doing. I might even write a blog about it if I read it. This kind of literary niggardliness is not confined to either gender by the way, and each one specialises in its own style of showing disapproval of the success of others.
And so we travel on, as writers, carrying our pathetic little burdens of envy, like snail-shells on our backs, huffing and puffing if we imagine someone else is getting ahead, advancing. But the fact is, that’s a fool’s game. The only people who ‘advance’ are people who are a) brilliant at what they do; b) driven by flamboyant, unreserved personalities c) lucky and with plenty of contacts. The majority of us live free, to an extent, of b) and c), and I do mean free, because by not being sucked into the celebrity whirl, the soundbite moment, we are free to be creative, and to write what we want to write and not what someone else wants. So I shook my head and felt slight pity for the shrugging poet – himself quite garlanded with praise – who could not even welcome my new work into the world, the one thing we all want to have welcomed: our new compositions, our new imagined creations.
We should not be like this. We don’t have to be . . .