Just for the Thrill of it?

March 9, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 5 4 min read

“Oh there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work with someone who bullies me,” Colm Tóibín recently declared in response to M.J. Hyland‘s question about the enjoyment he derives from writing books. He was emphatic that this has always held true, and that the one pleasure of his career is, “The money.” He quickly clarified: “It is such a surprise.”

Tóibín’s dour response surprised many a reader, would-be-novelist, and practically-minded parent, as he bit his thumb at the general notion that one writes for pleasure – pleasure generated by writing, but if not, then at least in having written – and that the writer’s sacrifice lies in the resulting financial instability and lack of recognition of his work. And yet, Tóibín’s devotion to writing isn’t bound to the remuneration, or really, to any pleasure at all; he claims he writes, “Because I have things that will not go away.”

Spurred by Tóibín’s interview, the Guardian this week queried nine more authors who make their living at their desks. The pleasured writers were the few. Will Self is one of two; his assuredness and satisfaction, I suspect, is the envy of the lot: “I gain nothing from writing fiction; short stories are foreplay; novellas are heavy petting – but novels are the full monte.” A.L. Kennedy’s analogy, “Sex=nice thing. Sex for cash=probably less fun, perhaps morally uncomfy and psychologically unwise,” oddly complements Self’s response by partially restoring writing’s sexy veneer. This might help explain why each author has a unique set of titillations and hang-ups. John Banville’s response is more balanced – he admits the pleasures, but emphasizes the failures: “The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope is to ‘fail better.'”

The sense of failure, anxiety, and uncertainty that plagues writers reared its head again, rather mournfully this time, in D.T. Max’s article on David Foster Wallace in this week’s New Yorker, which Garth responded to in a previous post. Max chronicles Wallace’s struggle with anxiety over his literary output and completing what he set out to achieve. He writes that Wallace confided, regarding writing The Pale King, “I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.” And Don DeLillo, in response to Wallace’s inquiry about a writer’s anxieties, reassures him with a quote from yet another master, Henry James: “Doubt is our passion.” Garth raised the question whether writing fiction fueled Wallace’s mental instability, as Max implies at times, or rather, if Wallace’s depression and anxiety somehow enabled his fiction. (Avital Ronell’s understanding that,”Anxiety is the mood, par excellence, of ethicity,” would support the latter.)

So much for the idea of fun. Javier Marías also recently touched on the tortured lives of writers, albeit somewhat tongue-in cheek, for he speaks of writers’ lives as if he were merely a spectator and not an author himself. (Marías’s life I imagine, will provide fertile ground for future biographers, beginning with his identical Madrid apartments, one decorated in white, the other in black). Marías proceeds glibly, listing abhorrent traits of artists – the megalomania, the addiction – and their basic inability to handle whatever befalls them: “They find it equally difficult to cope with either success of failure and require unhealthily large doses of attention.” However humorous the satire, a shard of truth lies beneath.

coverMarías knows writers intimately, not only because he is one, but because his fascination led him to compose a series of brief biographies of dead writers as if they were fictional characters. His accounts of their tumultuous lives are collected in Written Lives. In the introduction, Marías warns, “the one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals,” and follows to prove his point by recounting many a tormented life and death, including the disembowelment and decapitation of Yukio Mishima and how Malcolm Lowry’s wife found him in a whorehouse drunk, without clothes – because he sold them to buy a bottle of gin. Marías pays heed to the quotidian pains of writing as well: Djuna Barnes “would sometimes work three or four eight-hour days just to produce two or three lines of verse,” and spent the equivalent of 40 years alone in her apartment, with her typewriter as her sole companion. Oscar Wilde accounts for a difficult day: “This morning, I took out a comma, and this afternoon, I put it back in again.” Conrad at least took some pleasure in his displeasure: “nothing consoled him more than being shut up in his study, writing with agonizing difficulty.” Of the calamities that befell the writers, these are just a few.

Why then, does Tóibín’s claim that he doesn’t enjoy writing leave us dumbfounded? Perhaps as readers, we like to believe we’re sharing the delights of a good book – a witty remark, a linguistic pirouette – with the author, and that we’re partaking in a camaraderie of the mind, when instead we’re more like children scurrying along on an amusement park ride. No one expects the person who creates roller coasters to enjoy the labor of building them as much as the patrons enjoy riding them. Perhaps it’s enough to say that the act communication, of telling “what it’s like to be a fucking human being” – Wallace’s professed aim in fiction – lies at the core.

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here: https://www.annekyoder.com.


  1. …or rather (I had hoped to suggest) that Wallace's tenuous mental health posed a risk to his fiction (rather than vice versa.) But this is a fascinating post, Anne!

  2. Thanks, Garth–and apologies for pointing your causal arrow in an unintended direction.

  3. Anne, I assume the above should read "They find it equally difficult to cope with either success OR failure…" Not to nit-pick, just checking — because the "success OF failure" is an interesting notion, too…

    I wonder if this is a longevity issue. I am in my mid-30s and find no greater pleasure (well, maybe competitive with a couple others) than writing fiction (novels in particular, I am in-progress on #2). The writing itself, that is, the actual process of putting words and stories and scenes together, is pure pleasure. All the afterwards is what's unpleasant — assessing whether it's "good," marketing, reviews, the "career" side of it, etc. I wonder (and fear) that "being read" over time is what ultimately messes with that pure pleasure, that voice of the critical audience that begins to overwhelm the creation experience.

  4. This reminded of something I read recently in Larry McMurtry's book about collecting books and being a bookseller for 40 or 50 years.
    These days, he claims he would rather buy and sell books than write them.

    Texas Troll

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