No matter how long you study, or how much raw talent you possess, you will not uncover a formula for creating unforgettable fiction, because it doesn’t exist. The difference between a piece of forgettable fiction and a long-standing piece of fiction isn’t as simple as good or bad writing. An unforgettable book surfs the zeitgeist and is lifted on the crest of the wave to become something larger; it carves a notch in the tree of time; there is something different about it, which changes books that come afterwards, but which through their attempted emulations never renew literature like the original because they are echoes of it.
Even the author of the unforgettable work stuggles to reproduce their success, and can become trapped by the one novel of theirs which everyone has read: Joseph Heller published seven novels but will always be know for Catch-22; Anthony Burgess published more than thirty novels, but the light of recognition in people’s eyes illuminates when you mention A Clockwork Orange. The great novel can fuel a career, driving a novelist onwards in a determination to overcome their most renowned work, but it can also suffocate the creative artist as it did for Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger.
The aim of writing a classic is like chasing a cloud of smoke as it dissipates. Books take time to write and by the time your work is published the zeitgeist will have changed. You can only write the thing in front of you. To attempt to do otherwise will involve chopping and changing direction and never completing your work.
The message is: do not fret and stress over how big your novel is going to be. If the writing is read, and most importantly, engaged with, it doesn’t matter if it is afterwards forgotten, the task is to simply keep writing, allowing everything you write to improve on the next thing you write.
Putting your all into a novel, in the hope of writing a classic, places too much pressure on one book. The hits come with the misses. If the unforgettable book arrives, it will be your calling card and a route to further work, but it will also cast a long shadow, as has been proven time and again.
Be prepared to be ignored. If success finds you, ready yourself for the difficulty of maintaining it. Publishers are wisened to successful first novels. They will show caution in investing in further work. The halo of a successful work needs to burn brightly to prove worthy of forward investment.
Book series are popular because they stretch the halo into an elliptical orbit. Notice how many long-term successful authors write a series based around the same characters, while the fortune of literary writers who stoically refuse to follow this route leads them to rely on striking the right chord time and again from scratch.
Established authors with an area of expertise, or genre, like historical fiction, romance, science fiction or detective fiction tend to publish more frequently and to a steadier reception. I’m thinking here of a range of authors, which might include Ian Rankin, Philip K. Dick, Iain M. Banks, Phillipa Gregory. These are authors who publish (or did publish) at least one book a year, sometimes more. By labelling them genre writers, I simply mean that they show(ed) committment to a primary genre, not that they should be excluded from consideration as writers of literature.
Writing within a genre provides a point of continuity between a writer’s own novels and those of writers who have come before. Literary writers, in contrast, typically refuse to identify themselves as fantasy, science fiction, crime writers, or anything singular. They use their awareness of what has come before in order to rebel against it. The modernist shackles of making it new weigh heavily on them. This forces literary writers to toil for years seeking the elixir of newness, with the hope of arising like a phoenix when they reappear to the public to promote their work.
The genre writer can throw off a fair amount of this anxiety, and the accompanying delays to publication, which appear to be a consequence of it. But this isn’t a way of suggesting genre writing is forgettable fiction (it is more helpful to label it familiar fiction, which in the right hands can become unfamiliar fiction – more on this another time!). Neither is it an attempt to disuade people from writing literary novels. The type of author you are is rarely a choice. You are inspired by the novelists you read and the types of fiction which excite you. Trying to transform yourself into something else is near impossible. The advice is instead that it is fine to write forgettable fiction, even desirable.
No one can deny being aroused by the idea of seeing their writing elevated to the level of classic fiction and being read by an unimaginable number of people, but the freedom to write without the pressures that come packaged with this has many of its own pleasures. These are to be celebrated along with writing for the sake of writing, for the many things it can bring: a way of ordering and understanding the world, a community of like-minded people, and so the list goes on … (feel free to add your own).
© 2020 Anthony Levings
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.