Saturday 10am #2

The publisher of my novel has destroyed the unsold copies, I suspect. They haven’t told me this; they haven’t told me anything for years. But first I happened to notice it going cheaply late last year and bought some copies. Then, last month, I was visiting the publisher’s online store and saw the promising heading ‘TAG Hungerford Award Winners’, of which I am one, and clicked on it, only to find my book and the other winners before 2003 wiped away. I started searching for other books which used to be available and almost anything more than ten years old was gone. And finally, a bookseller told me she had tried to order a copy of a book from this publisher, only to be told they no longer had any stock; perhaps she should contact the author directly. There are two things for me to deal with, then. First, my grievance that the publisher didn’t offer me a chance to buy copies before their destruction – a final insult, but I won’t dwell further on that. Second, the fact I have gone out of print. 

It hit me harder when someone asked me on Twitter what had happened to the destroyed books. How had they been destroyed? I hadn’t thought about this. I gave myself permission several years ago to stop thinking about the bodies of people I have loved who are now dead. I just started shutting down that line of thinking. So perhaps I’d unconsciously done the same to thoughts about the mechanics of the destruction of the copies of my novel and just what manner of substance they have become – garden mulch, recycled cardboard, landfill? There’s no consolation actually, no matter how worthy a fate they’ve met.

I attended a masterclass with historian Mark McKenna in April and he talked about his biography of Manning Clark, An Eye for Eternity (2011). As the title suggests, McKenna said Clark wanted immortality, which is what I’ve always wanted. Yet just a couple of decades after his death, Clark’s monumental history of Australia is apparently not often used in the teaching of history, already superseded. Clark would be devastated, McKenna said.

I was devastated too. You mean to say histories are so fragile, so quickly replaced? I’ve been sensitive about my transfer from writing fiction to biography – a form of history, one could argue. I spent the first three years being defensive of biography’s contested status as creative writing. I wanted it to last like fiction lasts. But it might be that there is not just one delusion in that hope, but two.

I have never got over reading Julian Barnes’ memoir of death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. Every book, he tells us, must have a final reader:

First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae.  (225)

Barnes then addresses his last reader, at first thanking them for their time but then realising that by definition this last reader has not passed on his work to anyone else, and so he curses them.

When I started writing seriously at age fifteen, I wanted publication more than anything. I traded a social life for extra time to write. Given my social anxiety, that seemed sensible. But it was based on a delusion of permanence, that literature was something which never died. After two big failures in my writing career, I now believe what I should have believed all along: that the process of writing has to be rewarding enough in itself. If only publication makes it worthwhile, I shouldn’t do it. That is why I’ve given up fiction – somewhere along the line, after too many failures, it stopped being rewarding, if it ever had been. I like to think I was just writing in the wrong genre, that by temperament and ability I’m more suited to non-fiction; time will tell on that, but I’ve enjoyed writing my biography so far. I can say, on many days, the process is reward enough.

So all this is to say there are many illusions for a writer to lose over the years and I had more than most. Going out of print is a splendid test of the state of my illusions, an anti-milestone I hadn’t thought ahead to. But there’s consolations to be found when writing in time instead of outside of it, as I will now strive to do.