A recent survey suggests that, out of all the jobs on the planet, 60% of Britons would most like to be an author. (No idea who they asked, but the fact that positions two and three are taken up by ‘librarian’ and ‘academic’ suggests to me that very few viewers of X Factor took part.)
Well, as some kind of an author, perhaps I can offer an opinion as to why this might be, along with an insight into my impression of doing the most attractive job in the world©.
On its best day writing a novel is an immense pleasure. Creating a world and populating it with people who have sprung from your imagination is a lot of fun. You can play God, all the while fantasising about the millions that might come your way when your finished work defines the zeitgeist and is then bought by a rich film producer and made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Natalie Portman. Perhaps not every author harbours this attendant fantasy, but I’ve often thought of writing books to be a long, difficult version of buying a lottery ticket: if the book turns out well it could be made into There Will Be Blood or Jurassic Park. And that would be pretty cool. If the book turns out shit, or is never finished, then that dream must disappear, but until reality sets in, everything is perfect.
But is the actual writing (typing, marking out chunks of time when you could otherwise be playing Crossy Road on your iPad, suffering creative speedbumps and road blocks) fun? I think so. The things that make it less enjoyable are external processes that you can choose not to suffer: the guilt writers feel if they haven’t written enough or solved a plot flaw; the insane and seemingly insurmountable difficulty of actually getting down to the bloody thing when there are so many distractions on the internet; the torture of looking with envious eyes at the success of others, etc. But the actual writing? When it’s flowing? Sheer bliss.
Then again, it’s not my only job. I’m fortunate enough to spend my working days with a bunch of fantastic, pleasant, funny, driven people, all of whom are making great efforts to solve fascinating problems for a company that millions of people love, and that is a great privilege. If I had to spend most of my hours alone, cranking out the words and pages that might allow me to crank out more words and pages, and hopefully pay the mortgage, I might find it less appealing. In the first link above, Sebastian Faulks, an immensely successful author, talks about wanting to give it up to do a proper job for just that reason. And my old boss, Peter Souter, writer of several excellent plays and a fine TV series, told me the same thing, which is one of the reasons he decided to return to agency life.
I’d guess that the 60% who want to be an author want to choose their working hours, in which they produce an excellent and beloved work of art, giving them the golden treble of autonomy, mastery and purpose. That does sound appealing, but of course it misses the uncertainty that your next novel will be enough of a success to pay the bills. That’s the reality of being an author, and in these impecunious times the chances of making decent cash solely through the writing of novels are slim to none.
Having said all that, I’m the kind of vain, shallow wanker who takes immense pleasure in knowing lots of people want to do something I’ve done, so I shall continue to bask in their envy as I procrastinate away another hour in which I could otherwise be writing my next book.