Thursday, 12 May 2011


The mother of a highly successful writer sang her offspring’s praises to me recently – for writing the sort of “rubbish” (her word, not mine) that masses of readers want to read – said offspring earns a lot from their writing – but wouldn’t choose to read that stuff themselves as (quote) they “have standards.”

I did not sleep easily after that. My head was/is full of questions. What is the logical outcome of this... a highly literate, Oxbridge-educated (is this relevant??) writer who has chosen to write the kind of books they look down on as a reader?? Of course, they have a perfect right to do so. And every reader has a perfect right to read exactly what they wish. However. What happens to lasting literature if those who might well attempt to write it, never do because it makes them no money any more? But you don't need an education to be a writer of meaningful words, do you? I was churning over these conundrums in my head... and my continuing sleeplessness was fuelled by my recent reading of a fascinating and very sad article by Carlo Gebler – entitled A Life in Literature – or What You Might Lose by Becoming a Writer”.

Here are a few quotes from this article. Comments from self at the end. And a link to the whole thing, which ought to be required reading on all CW courses if you ask moi.

Carlo Gebler:
In 1982 or maybe 1983, I published my first short story, called “The Speech of Birds.” ...The Literary Review paid me thirty pounds...I had come by publication honestly. I had worked hard. I had learned things, and I had put those things into practice. My interest in writing was also honest. I was a passionate reader.

I wrote all sorts of things. I worked as reader and wrote reports. I wrote novels. I wrote reviews. I wrote plays. I wrote scripts. I wrote all kinds of things. I made some money....I became a writer and teacher.

Today, I am 56. I hardly read any more. Not like I did....(There is) no time for the proper function of my imagination. ...That capacity has not been killed... my attitude has changed.

I never simply enjoy the act of reading anymore. My authorial intelligence is totally and fully engaged. When I read, whatever I read, I examine and analyze.

I read primarily to steal. This attitude applies not just to books but to everything. In every situation ... there is another part of my personality that is scrutinizing my experiences and thinking two terrible things: What’s in this for me? And: Can I use this? Can I put it in a story? Can I put it in an article?

I am also bitter. ...I am so fucked off with how the world has gone to the dogs and in particular that little bit of the world I think I care about most, which is the Kingdom of Literature...

Self – comments.
I am so saddened by the overall lack of joy here. The apparent self-harming low level of self-esteem in the ghastly admission that he reads now for money and ‘to steal’, not for enjoyment or for mental food. What has the writer's life done to the spirit of this man? The drift from the great pleasure of learning, writing better and better, becoming published, spreading one’s wings, achieving goals – and ultimately - the life of the writer as prisoner of the system. And a system he never meant to become part of, or agrees with.

The complete article is HERE on Some Blind Alleys


  1. I also found the article very sad. It's more like journalism that he describes, which is notoriously destructive of creative writing. Flann O'Brien churned out his very funny Myles na Gopaleen column weekly for a living but it is said to have drained his creative energies and he did become a dipso and seemingly bitter but even the late works though drier are still brilliant and hilarious. I think Carlo has written from a state of depression about wage slavery, which I can totally relate to. It's just unfortunate that it is cross-linked to his real vocation (if I'm right). There was a TV program a few years ago about a guy who loved surfing and surfboards. To be able to stay in Newquay, he got a job in a workshop making surfboards and he soon came to hate them.

  2. As regards the first writer, my initial response was to wonder whether those are actually his views or his mother's. Maybe she feels the need to apologise for her son's less than 'literary' output, whereas he is actually perfectly happy writing what he does - and reading it too.

    As you have said, people have a right to read or write whatever they like and writing is not the only place where people may have to compromise to make a living, sad as that may be.

  3. Gosh, that's pretty damn sobering, isn't it? I know what CG means about reading for different reasons, I know I read short stories with half an eye out for the how of it, how and why what works works, so I can learn from it. But then I do that with novels, with TV programs (how does that character seem so real?) and other fictional universes. I see it as part of doing what we do. However, this has spurred me on to spending my month's writing retreat on a "short story fast", not reading anything but my own work. Yes, I might go mad. But perhaps a month off will retrain me in what reading is about... or something!

    Re the Pushy Mother of Famous Oxford-Educated Offspring, it does occur to me that the Offspring might not see it the way Mother does. I can't imagine spending all your time (or perhaps it doesn't take long?) writing stuff you wouldn't/couldn't bear to read. Now that's sad.

  4. Oh, sorry, but that all seems like bollocks to me.

    Your friend's son - there's no reason he has to like best the genre he writes best. I'm good at some things but they aren't my favourite things. I write womag best, but prefer to read literary or historical fiction (I do also read womag). I'm (becoming) good at cooking simple family meals, but I prefer to eat restaurant food. I'm good at my day job but happier doing other things.

    As for Carlo Gebler - I skimmed the article the other day but dismissed him as an up-himself whinger. I agree that when you start writing and start analysing what makes a good story it can change the way you read. If it means you no longer enjoy reading the way you once did, then try reading a different genre, far removed from what you write, or read non-fiction, or just watch films and tv soaps instead. The last paragraph you quote from him is just whinging. I've no time for that (life's too short). I wouldn't lose sleep over any of this.

  5. Gebler sounds like a right moaner. He may have become sad and bitter, but why assume that it's "the writing life" that has done that to him? Writing is very important to me, but sometimes I have to remind myself just to live; to simply experience things without thinking about how I might make writerly use of it. Doesn't take much effort! As for making a living, I'd feel sorry for him if someone was making a lot of money from his work and he wasn't getting his fair share. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

  6. What Womagwriter said. Rah rah.

    I would add that if he was a woman people would whisper about hormones.

    Ask any wife of a car mechanic how often she gets her engine serviced and how enthusiastic is her old man about getting oily on his day off.

  7. If I ever write anything that joyless in my life, and you catch me at it, please give me a good shake and a glass of wine.

    Sometimes when I'm reading a story and it's not working for me, I do come over a bit edity and start asking why that is. But the great pleasure of reading wonderful writing is that it has the power to transport me and get beyond everything else in my head.

    As for looking down on the readers of what you write, well I suppose if you find yourself capable of being condescending to anyone who takes the time to read a book these days, regardless of who wrote it, that's pretty sad. And if you choose to write books you consider rubbish, cynically, because that's how you earn a living, well OK but that's awfully sad too. Why not try doing something you enjoy? Perhaps Mother of writer has her wires crossed.

    Joyfully readingly and writingly yours...

  8. Ossian - thanks for commenting. I guess there was a lot in what Gebler said that made me sad for him - but in the end, some of the decisions he has made are purely voluntary. Working within prisons, or indeed with any group of disadvantaged writers, for example, is hard hard work, from experience - hardly likely to help a depressed state. But I was particularly sad to see a writer of his standing saying that he 'steals' from others - in the same breath as he is talking about reading work for judging purposes. There will be those who take that as permission to do the same - while not bothering to differentiate between inspiration and the other thing. The writing world is tough enough without lazy language inflaming it further.

  9. Hello Bernadette - You are right. We all have a right to write what we want, and do with it what we wish. I obviously can't comment on the mother's own views - but suspect you may well be right...

  10. Hi T - yes, I know up to a point what he is talking about regarding reading - it now takes a very good book to make me fall into the fictive dream we aim to create! I am analysing and learning all the time when I read at some level- but his words were so laden with heavy despair that his reading was somehow unenjoyable... he didn't mention enjoying anything any more... thats so sad! If he feels something is worth 'using as inspiration' - he absolutely must have enjoyed it, I think!
    Like Bernadette - I think you've analysed the parental attitude here well!

  11. Hi Womagwriter - I think it was the 'standards' issue that made me sit up and then not sleep. It seemed so very arrogant! And equally it seemed a sort of prostitution (in the broadest sense) if one seriously didn't like doing something, but did it anyway, just for ££- if you see what I mean.

  12. Wend - I think you've been writing a raunchy scene... is there an oily car mechanic servicing women in your forthcoming blockbuster? I reserve the right to b your first reader. Purely for feedback purposes, you understand. Ahem.

  13. Hi neil - I really like this point..."I have to remind myself just to live; to simply experience things without thinking about how I might make writerly use of it. " - good to hear that said - I forget it myself sometimes - worrying if Im not writing something...thanks!

  14. Hi Claire - will do! And yes, of course - I find now I've been scribbling for a while, I can spot flaws more easily, and therefore it takes more to transport me that it used to a few years back...nowt wrong in that. But yes - if we stop enjoying it, then stop doing it, I guess... only that's easy for me to say - I don't fill the fridge on my earnings...
    and I hereby declare I love anyone who reads anything. Especially my stuff (!!)

  15. Thanks to Illustrious 'Blogger' which has been out of commission for a day - we seem to have had all our really great comments discussion thread deleted. Thank you to Ossian, Womagwriter, Bernadette, Tania, Claire, Neil, and there was someone else.. who was it?
    Please do repost your thoughts, if you can be bothered. It makes one realise how fleeting is the thing we call the Internet.. nothing is lasting. Like the depressing thoughts of Gebler!

  16. Yes, lots of people lost things when Blogger crashed this week - unusual. Just one of those things.

    Now what did I say? I thought it was sad that Carlo Gebler felt that way, had come to feel that he was a wage slave in the writing trade. Maybe he was just going through a glum spell. It reminded me of a chap on a program about surfing who loved surfing so much that he got a job down in Newquay so he could stay there and surf all the time. The job he took was in a surfboard making workshop, a small factory, but from loving surfboards to start with he came to hate them after having to work on them.

    It was more like journalism he was describing, which has its charms but is ultimately a production line. I think it has drained some well known writers like the novelist Flann O'Brien, who is said to have been worn out by writing his weekly humorous column. That said, who wouldn't settle for writing The Dalkey Archive during his supposedly "worn out" phase? It's a little drier than his early stuff but still superb.

    There is another possible way to go, which is to be like T. S. Eliot or Philip Larkin, or (in science) Einstein, who all had fairly undemanding day jobs that allowed them the peace they needed while they were penning the works we remember them for. If making a living is a real concern then maybe try and find such a job, perhaps part time, so you don't come to feel that writing is a life in shackles. Maybe it suits poetry but not novels so much. I've heard of novelists who had to get up at 6 a.m. every morning and write for an hour or two before going in to the day job.

    There are people who are lucky enough to have the life they want, writing what they want to and getting paid well for it - not many, though. I wouldn't mind being that kind of writer but I don't want to be a journeyman writer, judger of competitions for money like Gebler having to read 50 novels for £1,000 (it would take me several years the way I read - that's another thing he said, he doesn't read like a proper reader anymore.)

    I say do it all for the joy of it or don't do it at all.

  17. I'm glad I was out of commission for a couple of days thereby avoiding the whole Blogger fiasco. I've been busy trying to finish my novelette while also indulging in some fun things that I've neglected to do. I did experience problems on my Blackberry and I hope everything is back to normal. I haven't checked any drafts (I didn't have many) to see if they've gone "poof" or if they are still there. This article definitely sounds depressing! I think this may have more to do with the writer's state mind more than anything else. I think that we as writers always have to have a sense of wonder about life otherwise we couldn't be writers. As soon as I'm done I'll give you my two cents worth! Hope this post makes it!

  18. Here's what I was trying to write when blogger ate my words...this reminds me of a time years ago when I played in a great amateur orchestra in Boston. After one of our concerts we went to our local for a celebratory drink. We were all full of energy and excitement because it had been a great concert. Sitting there was a man at the bar on his own. He saw all of us with our instruments and asked who we were. When we told him he sneered and muttered something and went back to his drink. Who was he? A violinist with The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's greatest orchestras. He had the position that any young musician would die for. But he was bored, depressed, undoubtedly poorer and less famous than he had hoped he would be. And he wanted to share that with us. He was not only sad, but selfish, and I fear Gebler is the same. What we do is hard. And the industry we do it in is competitive and unforgiving. But it is up to us how we respond to it all. No one is forcing him to write. There are many wonderful ways to live a creative life. I have no patience for people who blame the world for their own lack of vitality and ingenuity.
    So there!

  19. Sue I completely agree with you. I find it vile that people would want to spit their poison on my party. And too I suspect people like this would be unhappy anywhere.

  20. Personally, I wouldn't say that Gebler's piece displays lack of vitaliity and ingenuity - quite the opposite. What is this: are we back in Victorian times, where we have a duty to be happy and not blame social conditions? Gebler is quite clear, and correct in my opinion, about the kinds of pressures that are squeezing writers, and if we are not open about them but go on grinning and bearing them we encourage and endorse them. Sue, your instance absolutely illustrates the point he is making: when you're an amateur you can still enjoy the thrill of true creativity, but becoming a professional in the current climate can squeeze away the of creativity. I don't think those of us who enjoy private patronage (my husband keeps me) are in any position to start criticising those who are being squeezed by the demands of needing to keep a family and say they should be keeping their chins up to make keep the atmosphere nice for the rest of us. So there.

  21. No problemo.

    Another thing that article made me think (forgot what I wrote) was how easy it is to put something on the internet and if you're feeling down then this isn't always a positive.

    I wondered if he felt better just for writing and posting but then are all the discussions positive or negative? For him?

    Then again, as Blogger demonstrated, easy come - easy go.

  22. I want to add that I am not criticising Carlo Gebler, I am sympathising with him and trying to think of more positive scenarios. I can't advise him in any way as I am in no position to do so. There is a difference between "Art" and other "products". I don't know if art can grow like a lotus from a midden heap, I suppose it can but it has to be somehow protected from trampled by the machines of drudgery. By every means let artists be gloomy, miserable, depressed. I am certainly not a born again writer wanting everyone to sing Kumbaya and exchange hugs of peace. Not sure where that leaves me but I know I don't want the drudgery, have no interest in it and I'm not prepared "to go through it" to get to some mythical place that would only ever be where I started out from. If the objective is to make a living, anything goes. I would rather separate making a living from writing, as it's only exigency that would couple them, nobody would wish to have to churn stuff out to order unless it were a matter of survival. Then if it's a matter of survival there are far easier ways to make money. It's a tangled problem. Everyone of course must do as they wish and good luck to them. I don't think Carlo Gebler was trying to rain on anyone's parade, it was just a "cri de coeur", an account of his own situation.

    He makes some assumptions, defines two states, one of being an author and the next of being a writer. He feels that he was an author and that was a sort of Eden, as he portrays it. Giving up all to try and make a living as "a writer" seems to have involved him in doing a lot of things he doesn't really like doing; this is where I think he goes wrong. It's just a trade that is not well paid. I suspect if instead of £1,000 to read 50 novels for a competition, he had received £20,000 for the same task, we would not be reading his complaints.

    There was a bit of a stir in the US about a state paying fantasy author (Gaiman?) something like $47,000 for a speaking engagement at a state library. A congressman called him a parasite and some other choice language. However, the thing that amazes me about it, here where appearances at libraries are as likely as not to be purely voluntary is, $47,000 (!!!). There are other realms where silly money is obtainable. One could become a barrister (just about as hard as becoming a top writer), a share trader (who do you know in a bank/from Eton/I don't know what you have to do for this one)...etc.

  23. I'd written some really profound comment along the lines of 'oh this is all bollocks', I think. I don't like whinging writers - if you don't like what you're doing then do something else (if it's a hobby) or deal with it (if it's your dayjob. Lots of people don't much like their dayjob). Life's too short to whinge.

  24. That was sort of a depressing article to read. But I'm glad you posted it. I can understand how that happens. One of those most depressing aspects of this industry isn't the crap pay, the grind of it all -- it's losing the ability to truly enjoy reading anything for pleasure. And what I've discovered is not that I can't read for pleasure, only that there is so little capable of delivering it. That's the tragedy. Good prose, good books, are hard to find anymore. We do not live in a world where we encourage subtlety of voice -- writers are trained into cookie-cutter prose into a literary mill, and then we are surprised to find ourselves starving for lack of beauty in our day to day lives . . . how does one survive the psychological effects of it? It's easy to forget what good writing can do in a literary wasteland -- but you will remember all over again the day you find that book, that voice that moves you and leaves you trembling to hear it again. Isn't that why we do it in the first place?

    Sadly, I think many writers have this feeling, this sensation of hopelessness and desensitization -- and many of them are not yet 36, much less 56.

  25. Womagwriter: give over whingeing about whingeing writers!

  26. I found myself nodding with Sue and Martin's comments, and having read Gebler's article, I found it honest and realistic, even if the perspective is depressing.

    None of the writer's I know do it for the money, and it is a tough and at times godforsaken road we travel.

    I don't have quite the dilemma as some of you as writing is not my 'main job' (although I often get up early in a morning to write before I start my housewife duties ;)

    I'm only starting out as a writer, and don't profess to be in the literary category (more commercial Women's fiction) but I could see several points that Gebler wrote in myself, especially how everything I do/read is from the perspective of what I might be able to use.

    Reading this post makes me see how I'm right to keep my writing as it is at present. I write for a hobby and because I can't NOT write (pardon the double negative - I think you will know what I mean by that.)

    It's tough enough now, never mind if I had to write because my life/livelihood depended on it.

    As you say, it's an article all CW students should see.

  27. before the thread was eaten by Blogger, I added responses to all the comments - blathering on as usual. One thing I did say was pointing up the work Gebler does in prisons. Firstly he does not have to do this - but far more importantly, it is such important work. Must be tough to maintain a positive outlook faced with the issues there, v a v writing. That's speaking from a wee bit of experience - I worked on a voluntary basis in a residential drugs rehab for a few years. It was very tough - and the worst thing was not that the residents were difficult, or anything like that - it was the assumption from friends that I was plundering their lives for my work.
    That was at the back of my mind when I woffled something to that effect in the previous thread. but it also feeds into the rather unfortunate terminology Gebler uses, when he asserts that he reads everything (together with all experiences) in order to steal. I probably know what he means - and that is that he lives the existence of a writer, actively looking for inspiration... and he does not mean that he plagiarises, I am sure. Inspiration, being moved, caring about something enough to want to explore it in fiction - is somewhat different to lifting facts/the lives/work of others wholesale and exploiting it for your own gain.
    It's a question of respect. For others, but ultimately, for yourself.

  28. The lost comments are back. As my replacement comments were much better than the original, I guess it shows the value of rewriting.

  29. V, interesting choice of words there: "plundering their lives", "in order to steal". Writers do use other people's experiences and rework them, sometimes, but why be pejorative about it? Why feel guilty about it?

    The prisoners or drug users – or anyone who inspires a writer – might like the fact that their comments, experiences, whatever have lit a creative spark in someone else's life, or that someone has at least paid attention to them, taken the time to notice how they act or feel.

    Of course, they might not like it. But is it theft?

  30. The one thing that struck me reading Gebler's article was the fact that he could have spent the time writing this negative spiral of an essay actually writing something he wanted to write. Sad that someone should feel like this about reading/writing but blimey, if you write all that about how things detract from your own writing surely at some point during the writing of it you realise you could be actually be devoting this bit of time to what you really want to write.

  31. @Womagwriter - I'm with you about the whingers. If you can write well, there are plenty of ways of making a good living out of it. If you don't want to pursue them, so you can protect your inner artist, that's fine, but don't moan about your life choices. I'll save my sympathy for the people in the world who don't have any choices.

  32. Hi Neil - of course, I'm sure every writer finds inspiration in the work of other writers, and if not in noticing the lives of those around us, then where else? I suppose it was the baldness of the assertion that he only engages with others in order to take from them what he can which shocked me.
    As for 'using' the experiences of vulnerable people who are suffering because of their vulnerabilities, and making a profit out of it for oneself, not them - is that OK? I'll leave that as a question. If one does it with their permission, and the results help them in some way - is that OK?

  33. I had the experience of sitting in a garden at a barbeque when somebody who'd told some stories there in a previous year was handed a copy of a book and read one of my stories there. When he got to a certain paragraph he said, "Oh, you've used my story". A couple of paragraphs later, "Oh, you've used both my stories!" Another few paragraphs later, "You've used all my stories!" I said sorry, I had forgotten about that (true). I used his stories to make another story, deliberately, but it was only when he was reading the thing that I got a sinking feeling, and remembered about it. Luckily, he thought it was a hoot.

  34. Vanessa, on the "theft" issue, here's a nice quote from Michael Greenberg, talking about why he called his writing memoir "Beg, Borrow, Steal":

    "A writer is a kind of social outlaw. You’re constantly stealing,
    in the sense that you greedily take what people give you of themselves,
    you horde it, and by doing so steal a piece of who they are;
    even with the best of intentions, it is a kind of theft.
    You borrow from everywhere: other writers,
    snippets of conversations you overhear, the newspaper, friends.
    The quest for material is constant
    and turns you into a kind of spiritual omnivore... And sometimes you just flat
    out beg: for work, for attention, for a break, for a reader’s patience,
    for a subject’s time"

    [sorry about the odd formatting!]

  35. I really object to the word 'stealing' here. Having been the victim of a real thief of published and unpublished work, who went on to subject an erstwhile close working colleague to a couple of years of abuse in one way and another, I can tell you that theft really is a ghastly thing. When people are talking about 'inspiration', I wish they'd be wary of calling it theft and thus encouraging people like this.

    Not that it is relevant, but my treatment, after going out of my way to give this man professional encouragement, help, and a platform for his work in the form of publication in a text book, among other things - knocked me back so that I could not write for the best part of a year. I am not young - and time is something I do not have. My abuser found my upset hilariously funny and stupid. I was ridiculed in public for months, by a professional man who ought to know how to behave better. Misogyny perhaps? Certainly a deeply cruel person. I would not wish that experience on anyone.

  36. Vanessa,

    That sounds awful. Sorry if the Greenberg quote dredged up unhappy memories.

  37. Hi Neil - you are forgiven! It's the terminology - people throw around the idea that 'all writers are/must be thieves' without thinking about the consequences of using the word so happily. Most of us aren't 'thieves' any more than someone who takes a photo and then uses the colours of a lake and field and sky in a colour scheme at home...
    Those who deliberately lift someone else's work, even after they have begged you not to (and you have agreed...) and their ideas shared privately, will get their just rewards at the pearly gates.

  38. For avoidance of doubt, the friend I mentioned was not a writer and was just chatting normally, sharing anecdotes. Also the story had a lot more than that in it. It's called The Meeting if anyone wants to read it, but the book it's in is out of print. I think I posted it in my notes on my private Facebook page, if you've got me on there.

  39. Oh, dear. Can't comment dispassionately as fell out with favourite brother-figure over CG's writing (they'd collaborated on something of which I thought CG's component was carp - not that I'm wholly qualified to judge such matters, I hastily add).
    But, oh, what dreariness! And self-pity. And such equally woeful lack of resourcefulness, too. Surely being a 'creative writer' (how I loathe that term!) doesn't automatically block off other parts of the intellect/intelligence? Would it not be possible to combine writing with another - and more lucrative - form of income-generation that is not strictly writing/literature-related?
    Plenty of writers I know do this, the typical arrangement being fiction-journalism (cue jeers from non-journos pointing out the two are indistinguishable *). One's a lawyer; another a shrink; others teach non-lit subjects; there must be loads more different combinations.
    I've never heard of anyone outside that tiny category regularly topping the best-seller lists who actually makes a living writing fiction.
    But am humble hack: what would I know ;-)?
    PS Wordverif saying 'almin' to me: min like!