The Self-Conscious Writer


9 April 2009 

Granta recently published online a 1979 submission letter from the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.


The story in question, “Getting Poisoned,” was not accepted by editor Bill Buford.  I suppose the posting is meant to evoke a kind of “Aw, cute” nostalgia… remember when Kazuo and Bill were unknown youngins? (Both Ishiguro and Buford were 25 in 1979.)

But this reminds me of an Ishiguro interview I read, some years back, following the publication of his fourth novel, When We Were Orphans, in 2000.  Ishiguro reflected on the then-prevailing (now outmoded) marketing strategy of the author book tour.  An excerpt from the interview following.  I’ve marked in bold the parts I’m thinking about an awful lot these days…

Are you able to work at all while you’re on tour?

Am I able to write? Are you kidding? I can’t even eat… It’s a strange existence….I started to publish novels in 1982 and then it was a very different kind of literary world or book world.

The established authors of the day didn’t tour. They might occasionally give a lecture at some august institution but they wouldn’t go on these book tours. They were very private figures. The whole publishing world changed…Somewhere in the equation I think authors started to get used as the main marketing tool… We are the kind of personal touch between a publishing house on the east coast and some prized independent book store on the west coast. It can’t all be done just on the Internet or fax…

I think along with the explosion of creative writing classes around the world, the book tour is the other big new thing that’s going to influence contemporary writing… I think these are much bigger than computer technology or anything like that. These are the things that actually affect the environment in which the writer thinks, creates, writes.

I’m not just talking about the busyness of the tour. It’s a process by which, whether you like it or not, you’re made very aware of why you write and how you write, who your influences are and where you fit in vis-a-vis other authors. How your personal life fits into what you write. That’s a good thing in many ways. It’s very good that you’re sensitive to your audience. But nevertheless it has an effect and it probably does change the way you write. You become a much more self-conscious writer. The next time you go home and write in your study you can’t forget all these questions, all these probings, all these suggestions about why you write, what you should be writing next, what you shouldn’t have written before, how certain things link up.

Often people point out recurring things in your work that you didn’t notice and so all innocence is lost. Sometimes some spontaneity is lost as well. Certainly, a lot of self-consciousness is brought on I think when people look back on this era and when they look at the literature produced in this era they’ll have to look at the tour to understand why writing has gone in a certain direction.

Click here for the whole interview.


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