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Excessive expectations

On writers and mental health

The literary world is apparently in the grip of a mental health crisis. As of last week, the publisher Canongate is planning an authors’ handbook in partnership with the Society of Authors. It might superficially seem a good idea, but this is the type of hand holding few writers need. It’s bad enough that new writers are expected to read books on how to write without now having to read books on how to survive the book industry.

I have news for publishers — theory is nothing; practice is everything. Just as you learn about writing through writing, it’s through being published that you learn about publishing. If new writers want to know what they are letting themselves in for, they should simply read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, a scintillating portrayal of a poète maudit.

Orion has announced that it’s establishing an online academy for debut fiction authors with the aim of “demystifying the process and ensuring expectations are clear”. Do writers really need such guidance? Every single writer will naturally encounter the brutality of the publishing business through rejections, harsh reviews, low book sales and failure to win prizes. No preparation will cushion them from the reality — so why deter them from the off?

Every writer is neurodiverse, as you’d have to be insane in the first place

The new drive for author care is rooted in April’s survey by the Bookseller. 54 per cent of authors said the experience of publishing their debut book negatively affected their mental health. The writers cited anxiety, depression and lowered self-esteem — but surely all those symptoms are part and parcel of being a writer. Writing is an exceptionally lonely furrow, and many of the greatest writers have had mental breakdowns. Take Edgar Allan Poe, for example, who went deliriously mad. Jonathan Swift tried to pull his own eye out, and Gogol went so insane he burnt his own books. Poor Maeve Brennan became a bag lady, wandering the New York streets, whilst Hunter S. Thompson danced on the shores of lunacy through his drug-fuelled benders. Look at what happened to Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace, in spite of their huge acclaim. I hardly think “demystifying the process” would have helped them.

Most writers suffer from graphomania, which is a mental illness in itself. I sometimes chuckle when I read about writers who label themselves as neurodiverse because writing itself is about inventing fantasy worlds, as a child would — hardly indicative of a well-balanced mindset. Every writer is neurodiverse, as you’d have to be insane to want to be a writer in the first place. We all know that writing itself can be mentally therapeutic in terms of making sense of past trauma, but the paradox is that participating in the writing world is absolutely terrible for your mental health.

Of course, publishers should be kind to their writers. However, when Anna Frame, communications director of Canongate, uses terms like “emotional support for authors” and “pastoral care”, it does make us sound like university students. Why would publishers infantilise us when editors are the ones who make us cruelly kill our kids?

At this rate, big publishers will end up hiring mental health advisers alongside sensitivity readers, further bloating their staff numbers. Canongate has also said that it will publish fewer books to devote more time to writers, but wouldn’t they make more writers happier by publishing more books? Fewer publishing opportunities mean more frustratedly crazed writers. As Kafka said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”

Like writing, publishing is a vocation rather than a career

I can empathise with the debut writers in the Bookseller survey, many of whom mentioned having to organise their own book launches. I’ve arranged most of my launches, and they are the most hideous type of popularity barometer on earth. If no one turns up, it’s worse than being jilted at the altar. It’s a rite of passage for us writers, though, and a reminder to swiftly improve our invitational skills. As for poor reviews, the sympathetic cooing of a publisher can never erase that particular indignity. The American novelist James Purdy hilariously said that being published was like “throwing a party for friends and all these coarse wicked people come instead, and break the furniture and vomit all over the house”.

Personally, I have a very good relationship with my publisher Alan Hayes of Arlen House, and I can testify that a publisher’s advice can be invaluable in shaping your future. At times when Alan is busy with other books, though, I know to give him a wide berth. The writers in the survey talked of “dwindling support” from publishers, yet it’s important for writers to learn from the very start not to be too needy. Debut writers no doubt hope their first publisher will stay with them for years, but the reality is that indie presses come and go. Many of us run through publishers like laxatives.

I imagine that one of the main reasons behind authors’ handbooks and academies is for publishers to futureproof themselves from adverse publicity and to dodge a few uncomplimentary emails from writers. I can’t help thinking though, that a handbook only serves to function as a disclaimer. It strikes me as an attempt to achieve absolution rather than an acceptance of responsibility.

Canongate has announced another initiative: a resource pack for publishers in conjunction with English PEN. Publishers themselves seem to be suffering from mental health issues. In last week’s Guardian, Andrea Henry, an editorial director for Picador, mentioned industry concerns about working evenings and weekends. It’s a reasonable point, but as everyone knows, publishing is not a nine-to-five. Like writing, it’s a vocation rather than a career. Publishers tend to be deeply dedicated as, in addition to publishing books, they have to create hype around writers, but perhaps the wider issue is that many contemporary publishers just don’t have the requisite drive and passion. Irvine Welsh remarked this year, “Most of the executives who work in publishing now would be comfortable working in any organisation and comfortable selling shoes and trainers.” If this is the case, no wonder publishers don’t have time for authors. If a book is no more important than a shoe, we might as well all kick our writing habit into touch.

I can’t envisage anything more excruciating than sitting on Zoom with other debut writers being taught how to manage my expectations (though on the bright side, I’d be able to write an amusing satire about it). In literature, the only expectation worth having is not to expect anything. Inner conviction is forged by the setbacks, and no handbook will ever prepare you for that fact.

Leave the last word to James Purdy: “Writing is like being a boxer. If you don’t want to get knocked down, you shouldn’t be in the game.”

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