Only for the love of money
Three hundred years ago Samuel Johnson declared that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. Now the Irish novelist Colm Toibin has admitted to feeling much the same way, despite his slew of awards and the high esteem in which he is held by the literary establishment.
In an interview with fellow novelist MJ Hyland, Toibin said he took no enjoyment from writing his books—or from reading good reviews—and the best thing about being a writer was financial success.
“Oh there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me,” he said in response to Hyland’s question about how writing makes him feel.
“I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.”
Toibin said he hadn’t enjoyed writing any of his books, from his debut The South to his two Booker-shortlisted novels The Blackwater Lightship, about a young man dying of Aids who returns to his home in Ireland, and The Master, a portrait of Henry James.
“After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it’s never fun or anything. With a few of the books, especially The Heather Blazing, The Master and the new novel Brooklyn, there has been a real problem in not having a sort of breakdown as I worked on a particular passage,” he said in the interview, which appeared in the second edition of the online arts journal The Manchester Review at www.themanchesterreview.co.uk.
“I don’t want to go on about this too much, but there is a passage in each of those books that I found almost impossible to write and then harder and harder to rewrite. I hope never to have to look at those passages again.”
In response to Hyland’s query about what the best thing was about being a writer, he replied: “The money. I never knew there would be money ... it has nothing to do with enjoyment.”
The moment that he was declared winner of the International IMPAC Dublin award—worth €100 000 for The Master—must also have been a good one for the writer.
In his casting of himself as a professional author, in the literary game for the money, Toibin finds himself in good company, from Samuel Johnson to Thomas Hardy, who much preferred his poetry to his novels, seeing works including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge as merely a way to make a living.
Charles Dickens, meanwhile, was determined to make as much money as he could with his novels and Dostoevsky churned out his masterpiece Crime and Punishment because he desperately needed the advance from his publisher.
Toibin said he would never quit, because he has “things that will not go away—some of them are true; some slowly become imagined”.
He believes that his desire to seek fame as a novelist is “essentially neurotic”. He told Hyland: “I don’t think we have a right to enjoy our neuroses; in fact, I believe that we have a duty not to. But we cannot walk away from ourselves. Who else is there to become?”—