Editor’s Note: This is an occasional column where selected readers questions on writing will be addressed, so any question can be sent to the Literature Page Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
That is a really interesting question, and before answering it, there is another question that needs to be considered: whose idea of success are we talking about? Because the truth is, that could be the determining factor in providing an answer to the question being posed. For example, if a publisher is asked this, the definition of success is likely to be almost entirely financially-based, depending upon book sales and the amount of money earned from a publication. And that does of course make sense, because publishing is a business.
By contrast, if a reader is asked this same question the answer is more likely to be related to the content and impact of the book. So a reader may choose to focus on the effect the book has had on their thinking, or what kind of change it has brought about in the reader’s own life. To give an example, the book To Kill a Mockingbird was one that I read as a teenager, and the issues of poverty, injustice and the racial attitudes that it portrayed had a huge influence in terms of shaping my own perspectives on these issues.
Interestingly enough, To Kill a Mockingbird also happens to be one of the best-selling books of all time, and it is acknowledged that in the 1960s, the novel became a major factor in influencing many United States citizens’ views in favour of the Civil Rights Movement - thereby contributing to the support it received from the American public, and its subsequent success in challenging long held racist attitudes. But that is not the reason why I cherished the book. It meant something to me because of what I learned from it. As a result, Atticus Finch will always be one of my fictional heroes, and the beautifully-drawn character of Scout remains vivid in my memory despite the intervening years since I first read their story.
Another book, which also influenced me greatly, but for the opposite reason, was an all-but-forgotten tale titled Kathryn Brings Them Home. This story is set in South Africa, and describes the adventures of a plucky British girl who goes there to fetch her dead sister’s children home, and in the process discovers a fascinating, far away country. At age 12, I loved the book, and confidently told my mother, “I’m going to visit South Africa as soon as I grow up.”
The thing is, the book was set in apartheid-era South Africa. But this story “whitewashed,” turns the oppression and cruelty permeating those times into a simple tale of an English girl’s discovery of a joyous and exotic country. So I was immensely distressed when my mother replied, “I’m sorry, but you can’t go there. They won’t let you in, because they don’t like brown people.” Her reply mystified me, but my determination to understand what she meant led to a lifelong exploration of the issues of injustice - social, racial, gendered and otherwise - that permeate our world. So in a way, I’m actually glad I read that book, despite the fact that it was so utterly dishonest in terms of its portrayal of South Africa!
I should add that in my view, fiction does not need to be based on actual events, but authenticity in terms of storytelling is a crucial element of what takes a story from being a good one to being a great one.
Returning to the question of a writer’s success, there are of course readers who choose to buy a book simply because it’s popular. They want to be up to date with the next big thing, whether it’s a bestseller or a fashion trend. I suspect that these are some of the people who helped to make the atrociously written Fifty Shades of Grey such an enormous success. The fact that the book was breaking records for its phenomenal sales became in part a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So much so, that I actually had the experience of a German friend’s mother mentioning to me that she had just purchased this novel, and asking me what I thought of it. I said (truthfully) that I had not read it, but I could not imagine how this gracious woman would feel about having mentioned the book to me once she found out what its subject matter consisted of. As it happened, my friend’s mother had bought it simply because the sales staff at the bookstore told her that it was the next “must buy” book. She has never brought it up with me since.
Now, coming to the question of what the response might be if this question of success were to be posed to a writer, the truth is that even here, the answer might well vary depending on which writer you ask. There are many authors who are quite forthright about their ambition to make money, and some will admit to it being the main motive behind their writing. This is true of many writers who publish commercial fiction, and some who write genre fiction as well. A well known writer of literary fiction, my friend Prajwal Parajuly, once quite frankly told an audience at a literary fest where we were both on stage, that if his work had not brought financial rewards with it, he would have stopped writing. As it turned out, he is a gifted writer and something of a publishing phenomenon, so he really is one of the privileged few who have it all!
While most of us need to earn a living, I do think that many writers do not see making money as their primary aim. In any case, earning an income from almost any day job is an easier prospect than making money from writing! For some writers, it is a question of feeling that they have a story to tell, something that they urgently need to share with the wider world. For others, writing satisfies something deep inside them, and the work itself is a source of pleasure. For most, the process is therapeutic. So while is no doubt that money comes in very useful, as the wise author Jane Smiley once put it, “I believe that you either love the work or the rewards. Life is a lot easier if you love the work.”
Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, translator and development worker.