From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

(Terribly hungover. Zozo is a monster! Why do I always let him convince me to carry on drinking? Well, but he is the most charming among us, it must be said. I love him, whether it is sun or moon.)

So: unwritten books, and unfinished books. These are books it must be said to have a rather precarious life. They are trembling things, insects just this moment left the egg, not yet even shaken out their wings to dry. But they exist in some way, tenuous in their latency.

Next in my catalogue of books, we come to the most grim and gruesome of them all: unpublished books.

O, by all the saints of TanZo, is there a class of book more heart-breaking, more soul-consuming, more spirit-flogging, than an unpublished book?

I, by the grace of my ancestors’ Karo, have only had one or two early works rejected by publishers. (Publishers are only greedy merchants, when all is said and done, and have no ultimate attachment to art, for all their snobbery and airs and graces, their love is for quints and ekels and zarels, as is proper in any case for those of mercantile preponderance, only when they fluff about and zephyr their good taste to the public gaze, it does rather annoy me. You are only interested in money? Well, and very good! Then your books are no different, in the end, to barrels of dried fish or pots of pepper. They are products, no more, no less. Don’t pretend you care for art, my dear. Baku, for example, is such a snob, you’d think he’d written Kayza’s words for him. But this is digression.)

I have seen people crushed by their own books. At least one poor soul — Sima, the poet from Libar — I am convinced was led to suicide by the failure of his novel to find a publisher. That boy had an awful Karo, it is true, and hadn’t learned the coldness of spirit you need in this game, and one sensed something haunting him from the very first, but still, it was the rejection broke him, I am sure. And much the same might be said for poor old Maira — she was so highly strung, everyone said it, and she had debts, and Gairo treated her abominably, but she was so convinced by the quality of that last book of hers, when she couldn’t get it out, it was the disappointment took her to hang herself in the garden that night, most undeniably. (Gairo is a demon, I was told he joked about it when he heard, making a pun on her being “highly strung”. I have never liked Gairo, he has a touch of the devil E-Tzhi about him, too much ice in the heart, no one who looks that good in a mirror should really be a writer, in my opinion…)

Well, this is a most digressive entry, all digression and no argument. What I meant to insist upon is this: that the unpublished book is the one which, in general, inflicts the most suffering on writers.

I have lost count of the number of would-be writers I have met over my prestigious career. It sometimes seems that everyone is a writer of some sort or other. Why they all fight and flounder so much to give themselves the honour of this title — “writer” — is quite beyond me. All the writers I know, say that writing is a kind of gilded drudgery. The purer the writer, the greater the drudgery. The best writer I know, Dumo, is an utter slave, a donkey pulling a water wheel: she is the quietest thing imaginable, a shadow has more noise in it than she has, all she does is work, and she is the most boring company (in a wonderful way, though — she has a kind spirit, that woman). But I would take her works above those of any other writer living.

For the rest of us, though, it is a world of vanity and niggle. You struggle to make a reputation, and then you struggle to maintain that reputation. How? By continuing to write good books, of course — in the main, at least. And there it is at once: drudgery. As soon as one book is finished, you must set out on the next. Will it be as good? Is it too derivative? Should you change your style? What do the wretched critics want, who only know the limits of their own discretion, who slum through literature, stealing houses? And the public, forever chasing after the new thing? The latest thing? Well, the public want what the critics tell them, mostly, or what Baku puts on his boards or in the news-sheets. The public has no idea of quality, it is quite terrifying, the amount of vision they waste, reading fashionable vapour, convinced by Baku’s adverts that the work is “magisterial to the peak of judgement”, or “without equivalent in current days” or some such tosh. Ah, what a world, where everyone agrees a work to masterdom, but none know why! Kayza, for instance, is a prime example of this… Well! I had better not think too much of Kayza, it will only give me boils and an even more brutal headache…

Months, years, decades, even, spent on a book, writing it into life. And then, at last, it is finished. Off to the publishers it goes. No: rejection. No word of explanation: no sign they have understood your genius. More fool them! On to the next publisher. What!? No?! Another rejection. And still no sign of recognition.

Ah, dismal, dismal condition. You deliver the manuscript again. No, I’m sorry, Mr Baku is too busy to see you in person. You wait. Nothing. You hope. You wait. Still nothing. You hope. But, your belief is waning. You hope less. And when the rejection comes, it is less unexpected. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Rejection. I think I took my second novel (The Orchard With No Trees) to a whole fifteen publishers — that is to say, every house in Sahil, and by all fifteen, I was rejected. (Actually, I think Misuzomas mislaid the manuscript, rather than legitimately rejecting it, but by then, I had entirely lost heart, and I took the world’s hint — but, oh, what tantrums in my spirit! What ulcers of bitterness blown, what plots of revenge I dwelt upon! When I was successful, when my alpine genius was undenied, when people viewed me from all around, admiring me, envying me, how I would despise them down, those snobbish oafs who had dismissed my work, and so distempered me)…

Even now, years later, I can feel the burn of those rejections, when I think of them. Of course, as you get older, you realise, it is nothing personal, they just don’t think your work is any good, or will bring them in their quints and ekels. They don’t sit around, laughing at you (unless your work is truly awful, I suppose)…

Well, it is a brutal mill, literature, that grinds us all down. Even Kayza, who is a permanent sensation at the moment, is secretly ground down: those who really understand art laugh at him behind his back, mock his prose, watch the empty bubble of his achievement floating past; we know he is not so good, his style is an elegant mirage, we think it funny he seems to take himself at the multitude’s estimate, when the multitude has no real care for literature (why should they?) but only form long queues to feel themselves significant, and will swallow any trifle if it has the age’s taste to it, ignorant of what it is they consume, unable, in the end, to take a book seriously

So, perhaps they are right, after all?

Old, old complaints, I know…

Yes, a gilded drudgery. Whores, fools, slaves, thinking we are kings and queens, and perhaps even sometimes that we might share the parameters of a god. But gold is wrong. It is not gold, at the heart of it. Better than gold. Like air, but air very slightly changed. Taken from us, given back to us, slightly changed. Yes, I do think it so — this literature. Not the lions, not the hurricanes or wars, or poisons, or seductions, but a slight change to the air.

I should sleep. This morning does not agree with me.


Re-posted | Original post June 2013

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