Transcript of a recent dumb discussion:
Whippersnapper: Do you want to know the real problem with late-blooming novelists, as you call them?
Me: Do you have a specific problem in mind?
Whippersnapper: You bet… (Smug simper.) You’re all on ego trips. That’s why you insist on producing paper books to give to friends and relatives. And why you still crave to do book signings. And why you print bookmarks (that nobody uses any more) and tacky business cards that proclaim your title as: “Author.”
Me: [Not quite sure how to respond] Umm… well…
Naturally, all kinds of appropriate answers (and accompanying gestures) popped into my mind later.
Had I been as sharp as I used to be “in the olden days,” I would have pointed out that most of those “prideful sins” are committed in the hope of promoting sales, not to increase the author’s sense of self-importance. (Well, that’s true most of the time.)
More decisively, I would have also noted that a healthy ego — a well-balanced sense of self-esteem — is an essential piece of creative equipment for every fiction writer.
When Norman Mailer died in 2007, The New York Times titled his obituary: “Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84.”
An especially relevant passage from the piece: “Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match.”
I agree that writing a novel is a “heroic enterprise.” I say this even though many of the heroic novelists I know are shy introverts — personality traits that lead some people (including themselves) to conclude they have small egos.
Not so! How can anyone with low self-esteem accomplish the daunting job of assembling upwards of 100,000 well-chosen words to create a publishable manuscript?
Because the odds of writing even a moderate best seller are miniscule, few novelists earn minimum wage for the many hours they’ve invested in writing their manuscripts. The authors who finish novel-length manuscripts need more than commitment and writing skill. They also need a big helping of self-confidence that keeps saying, “You can write something worth reading — and beat the lousy odds.”
And there’s another factor I see as particularly significant to late-blooming novelists. We’re late bloomers either because…
- We didn’t think about writing fiction until many decades had passed.
- We wanted to write novels years earlier, but didn’t think we were ready.
IMO, both of these explanations for delay have their roots in the way we were brought up. We learned from our parents and teachers that books were special — and by implication, that the authors of books were equally special. That being so, sitting down to write a novel is inherently an act of high self esteem for a late-bloomer.
Of course, there are bound to be periods of doubt. Here’s another relevant passage from the Mailer obituary: Mr. Mailer later said of [his first novel, The Naked and the Dead]: “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace. On the other hand I also thought, ‘I don’t know anything about writing. I’m virtually an impostor.’”
My point is that even Norman Mailer did not have complete self-confidence in his abilities. But unless an author’s self-regard significantly outweighs his/her inappropriate modesty, he or she will never actually finish a novel.
I won’t deny that ego gratification is one of the rewards for finishing — and publishing — a novel. The burst of excitement produced by receiving a box of newly printed books from a publisher (or seeing your eBook on sale in the Kindle Store) doesn’t last long for most authors, but it’s a nifty feeling while it does.
We’re entitled to a moment of joy — given all the hours we spent writing the darn thing.
I’ll also admit that some late-blooming authors seem a tad “egotistical.” (A few minutes spent browsing randomly through novelist websites will prove the point.) However, I doubt that a true egomaniac (a person suffering from truly obsessive self-centeredness) could write a compelling novel because of his/her lack of empathy with others — along with the inability to follow-through and finish something as demanding as a novel.
On balance then, a robust ego is a fine thing for any novelist to have — even if it does occasionally annoy people in the immediate vicinity.