I’m fond of quoting this advice from André Gide:
“Throw away my book: you must understand that it represents only one of a thousand attitudes. You must find your own. If someone else could have done something as well as you, don’t do it. If someone else could have said something as well as you, don’t say it—or written something as well as you, don’t write it. Grow fond only of that which you can find nowhere but in yourself, and create out of yourself, impatiently or patiently, ah! that most irreplaceable of beings.”
In other words, write the book that only you can write. No other book is worth writing.
This goes beyond the usual injunction to write about what you know. Life experience is important, but Gide’s focus is more on the self—“that most irreplaceable of beings”—than on the writer’s outer experience.
Joseph Conrad provides a good example. Who else but Conrad could have written Victory or Lord Jim? The details of Conrad’s biography are well known and often cited to illuminate his works, but the more you study him and his works, the more you realize that to a great extent he sought and found the life experience he needed to write the books he wanted to write. If he’d never set foot on a ship, he probably would have ruminated on the same issues and would have found in whatever experience he had the subject matter for his novels. Assuming he remained true to himself, those would have been the books that only Joseph Conrad could have written.
Life experience can provide only the subject matter—but never the essence—of a book. That is the gist of Gide’s advice. The essence of a book is the glimpse it provides into something deeper than its subject matter. Let’s face it, most of us don’t lead very exciting lives. Nothing to write home about, as the saying goes, and usually even less to write novels about. But while our lives may be commonplace, our imaginations need not be. What we call the imagination is the knowable part of ”that most irreplaceable of beings,” the inner self.
Paradoxically, Gide’s advice is even more important to genre writers than to literary ones. It’s relatively easy to stay true to yourself when you’re writing a literary novel that can be anything you want it to be. Genre writers have a harder time of it if they want to stay true to themselves. The best genre fiction writers are able to put a stamp of individuality on everything they write. They play by the rules and still speak in their own voice. (Indeed, the pioneers in any genre—Raymond Chandler, H.P. Lovecraft, Phillip K. Dick—actually create the “personality” of the genre which later practitioners feel bound to imitate.)
Whether you’re writing literary or genre fiction, the engagement with “that most irreplaceable of beings” must be the same if writing is to be a process of self-discovery and growth—and ultimately, if it’s worth doing at all. Few writers today, even very good ones, can expect to earn a living from writing fiction. The odds of commercial success get slimmer every day. If you’re not earning a living from your writing, why should you do it? Are you wasting your time?
If you’re writing the book that only you can write, the answer is no. If you write that book, the publishing industry may eventually catch up with you—or maybe not; after all, they’re running a business. But if the publishers never catch up with you, at least you wrote the book that no one else could write. You didn’t waste your time.
Bruce Hartman has been a bookseller, pianist, songwriter and attorney. He lives with his wife in
His previous novel, Perfectly
Healthy Man Drops Dead, was published by Salvo Press in 2008. Philadelphia