It is a chilling thought, but the proof of good writing does not lie in the reading

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The Independent Online

I have just happened on three sentences I wish I had written. Nothing unusual about this if you keep intellectual company with good writers, but I wish I had written these sentences differently from the usual way I wish I had written sentences I haven't.

I have just happened on three sentences I wish I had written. Nothing unusual about this if you keep intellectual company with good writers, but I wish I had written these sentences differently from the usual way I wish I had written sentences I haven't.

Not for their outrageous wit, nor their swelling cadences, nor their thunder and lightning flashes of irrefutable truthfulness do I wish they were mine, but because they bespeak a calm, in the face of a universal provocation, that must commend itself to every writer alive or dead. An essential calm. A calm without which, in truth, no writer should be in the business. And so the reason I wish I had written these sentences is this: not to have written them – or at least not to have thought them, not to have almost written them – is to have failed to be a writer, in the serious sense, altogether.

And now you want to know what they are, these marvellous sentences, and who wrote them, since I've now admitted I didn't. Their author is the novelist, critic and editor Ford Madox Ford, a selection of whose critical essays has just been published in affordable paperback by Carcanet. So as from now, no home need be without examples of Ford Madox Ford's critical thought.

Other than novels by very good novelists, essays by very good novelists are all a library needs. And of course poems by very good poets. Should you be seeking advice on the subject, mine would be to get rid of all books of any other sort. Particularly biography, memoirs, gossip in the guise of history, popular philosophy and novels by not very good novelists. These last you can easily distinguish because they invariably have the word "Boy" in their title. Alternatively, you can just ask me.

Anyway, this, from an article written in 1922 entitled " Ulysses and the Handling of Indecencies" (no "Boy" there, notice), is the passage in question – the issue being whether the public, "the lay non-writing public" in Ford's words, will be up to the task of reading Ulysses.

"For myself, I care nothing about readers for writers. It is sufficient that the book should be there on the shelf, or the manuscript, down the years, slowly gathering the infiltrated dust of the bottom of a chest; indeed, it is enough that the words making it up should have ever been gathered together beneath a pen. Force once created is indestructible; we may let it go at that."

"Or the manuscript." Mark that. Or the manuscript. Meaning that in the end, taking the long view – and Ford Madox Ford doesn't mind taking the longest view that was ever taken – it might not matter a fig to anything but the author's bank balance, which is no consideration whatsoever, whether his words ever make it into book form at all.

Easy to say, of course, when your every word is published to acclaim. Easy for you, Ford. For most of us, the thought of writing a line that isn't given the chance to arrow into the throbbing heart of at least a single reader makes the blood run cold. Not be published, not be read! To lie in cold obstruction and to rot, gathering dust at the bottom of some unopened chest, an indestructible force only by virtue of the gathered words themselves, rather than on account of prizes, good reviews, appearances on chat shows or numbers of weeks at the top of bestseller lists.

Of course, one could take issue with the idea of an indestructible force that is never felt. It might be too platonic even for the best of us. A pure form of gravity that never pulls – are we really up to such idealism? We must have effect. We must imagine someone rummaging in that chest. And then running to tell others of his find. And the world a better place thereafter.

But then we are children of an age unable to measure anything except by the laws of marketing. Nothing is valuable for itself. A book must have its readers because a writer must have his money. And only when he has his money can his work be accounted a success.

Is it not astonishing that a novel's being a bestseller should be an inducement to the rest of us to read it? A million and one copies sold, it says on the jacket, and that fact alone, it would seem, must recommend it to our attention. Why? Because we want to be like everybody else? Because we are afraid to miss out? Because we believe that 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong?

In other contexts we take it as axiomatic that 50 million Frenchmen are always wrong. The French themselves acknowledge this. Hence the cult of the dust-gathering French novel, a work too refined to be apprehended by any but a handful of readers – Stendhal's "happy few" – and even those not to be encountered today, or even tomorrow, but only, if one's very lucky or very good, in some shadowy futurity when the chest shall at last be broken open.

"Almost nobody has read this novel" – that's what I'd like to see more of on book jackets, though I don't propose we start with mine. "Read this – no one else has," would be better. And best of all, "Suit yourself – the writer is indifferent to your curiosity or opinion, and writes only for writing's sake."

Then we'd be getting back to what we are supposed to be about.

'Why The Novel Matters', a South Bank Show special presented by Howard Jacobson, will be shown tomorrow evening on ITV1