Every literary success is an eventual failure

An uncomfortably high percentage of writers end up topping themselves
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The Independent Online

For the creatively minded, it has been a week of mixed messages. On Monday, Channel Four's Richard and Judy revealed to their viewers that they had plucked from obscurity five brilliant new writers for whom all the best things - bestseller lists, perhaps even a Booker Prize - await. On the same day, the news broke that a writer at the other end of the career parabola had blown his brains out. Meanwhile, Kazuo Ishiguro has been promoting his new novel by chuntering on, not for the first time, about how the talent of novelists declines as quickly as that of footballers, and at only a slightly later age.

Naturally enough, no such gloomy thoughts were articulated when, amid gasps and tears, the rather extraordinary result of a writing competition set up by the Richard Judy Show was announced. Of over 46,000 people who sent in the first chapter of a novel and a synopsis, a shortlist of five was selected. Of those, four have been offered publishing contracts with an advance of £20,000 (unless they hold out for a better offer), while the winner, Christine Aziz, a former dental receptionist who at 52 should, according to the Ishiguro theory, be playing in a veteran's league and contemplating retirement, has earned herself £50,000.

When such events take place, it is not only the lives of the winners that are changed. They confirm the widely-held view that the publishing world is an enclosed, insular place occupied by sneering, arrogant agents and sharp-elbowed, morally compromised editors, most of whom are related to one another, or sleeping together, or both. It takes those champions of ordinary folk Richard and Judy to supply the silver key to gain entry.

Although the view contains a certain amount of truth - there is no snob quite like a publishing snob - its currency has a disastrous effect, spreading not just paranoia and distrust among potential writers but also, more cruelly, giving them hope. When five ordinary viewers whose work has been helped along by a daytime TV show are immediately offered publishing contracts, it convinces those whose work has been rejected through the normal channels that it is the corrupt system rather than their own lack of talent that is to blame.

So the dream machine accelerates. To the thousands of those who believe that the stories inside their head could make them rich, happy authors, more thousands will now be added. Down in the shark-pool of vanity publishing, where many of these hopefuls will end up, jaws will be quivering and twitching in anticipation.

Miserabilists in the book world, of which there are many, might be tempted to point those still clinging to the fantasy version of the writing life in the direction of news reports of Hunter S Thompson's suicide, but that would both unkind and unfeasibly depressing. Thompson, no stranger himself to myth-making, hardly let the typical life of a writer.

On the other hand, an uncomfortably high percentage of writers end up topping themselves. When a friend of mine, Jerzy Kosinski, suffocated himself in 1991, it was largely because he had become convinced, at the age of 58, that his best work was behind him and that his voice as a writer was fading, day by day, like a photograph exposed to too much sunlight.

It's a sensation that many older writers, particularly those aware of the Ishiguro formula, will understand. In a sense, those like Hunter Thompson who have experienced a great success early in their careers have it toughest of all, either producing new work that never quite compares with the old, or discontentedly living off an ancient, dwindling reputation. Every time they sit down to write, they are competing with the one rival whom they will never beat, their younger, more talented selves. As the reliably gloomy Graham Greene put it, "Every success is an eventual failure."

It is interesting, and sometimes rather inspiring, to see how professional authors deal with the awkward fact that, in all but very few cases, they are living off a declining asset.

Some segue quietly and respectably into an associated field, perhaps teaching the ever-growing numbers of students on creative writing courses, occasionally referring to an ancient volume of their own work, now cracked and yellowing with age. Others lower the bar discreetly and earn a living from work in which professionalism and respect for a deadline matter more than the quality of the prose.

A few simply keep their heads down and work, rarely looking back at past achievements, ignoring the futile fashions of the book world. Now and then, as in the glorious case of Philip Roth, some kind of magical pensioner power kicks in and brings with age more, not less, talent.

The Richard and Judy Five, as they embark on their writing careers, should avoid spending too long in contemplation of the literary life's trimmers, gloom-merchants and self-toppers, but be inspired by those who have kept going. One of them, oddly in view of his unhelpfully negative views about the brevity of writing talent, is Kazuo Ishiguro himself - in his fifties, still producing good work and showing no sign of hanging up his boots.

For those who can do it and who keep their nerve, writing for a living still beats most real, grown-up jobs hands down.