Longtime readers of “Generation Y” are aware that, in addition to being a wildly successful newspaper columnist, I’m also a wildly unsuccessful fiction writer. Periodically I mention this hobby in the hope that some editor from Random House might own a ski house in Killington, read one of my pieces in the Mountain Times, and then—amid the ecstasy of having discovered a major new literary voice—frantically compose a beseeching email to me (firstname.lastname@example.org, in case you were wondering) with an offer to provide a six-figure advance for any book-length project I might be interesting in sending his way.
This hasn’t happened yet, but in any case I’ve just completed my second novel and am accepting offers. I wrote it over the course of about 10 months, after spending four and a half years on my first novel, and in fact the central idea behind the newer story was conceived during those long,humiliating years in which, having told all my friends and family that I was writing a book, I struggled interminably to finish, determined—while essentially learning to write along the way—to deliver a tradition-defying neo-Proustian masterwork that would be vital and fresh in all the ways that the moribund conventional novels with which I (as a reader) was so frustrated at the time were not.
I wrote on, more and more certain all the time that an endless freeform novel without a hint of a commercial hook by an unconnected first-time writer would never be published, yet simultaneously growing more and more invested in the writing process itself, unable to quit even though, every day, I felt ashamed of myself for the time I was wasting on something so perversely unprofitable to myself while accomplishing so little elsewhere in my life.
Writing fiction is perhaps an inherently embarrassing practice in that it connotes some inability to suit oneself to the realities of the world as it is. The necessity of finding recourse within a dreamland of words suggests—to many people, I think—a certain romantic feebleness that is negated only if the work of fiction sells, at which point the imaginative universe of the author is, in a sense, actualized: he becomes a visionary instead of a daydreamer. So whenever I spoke self-deprecatingly about my infinite, self-indulgent, uncommercial first novel, I assured my friends that I’d cash in with the next one—it would be a young-adult paranormal romance, exactly like “Twilight,” I joked.
In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next in the pursuit of my improbable literary aspirations, but perhaps as a consequence of that uncertainty, I told the same joke so many times that the idea stuck. What if I really did write a young-adult paranormal romance novel about an average middle-class teenager falling in love with a transcendently dreamy supernatural being, whose reciprocal passion liberates the narrator from the mundane oppressive earthliness of her standard teenage life, proving to her that she’s special? I understood why this kind of escapism was powerful—it dramatized perfectly the escape its readers truly sought when, with no other solution at hand, they resorted to picking up a book. Tentatively, I worked out a variation on the “Twilight” storyline, sketching a just-different-enough outline in my head.
An interesting thing about most massively successful novels—from “Twilight” to “Fifty Shades of Grey” to “The Da Vinci Code”—is that they’re so badly written that they inevitably inspire a large subset of their readers to believe that they, too, could pen an international blockbuster. On a sentence-by-sentence level, there’s no particular talent on display. You just have to identify the storytelling formulas that people respond to and then apply them to some new and titillating subject matter—the writing itself looks like a piece of cake.
But when I sat down to type out my shameless bestseller-to-be, I found that it’s virtually impossible to write a novel cynically. There’s a reason that people with can’t-miss concepts for profit-oriented novels never actually realize their ideas: if you aren’t authentically passionate about a story—if the process of writing it isn’t a process of discovery and personal delight, if its contents don’t reflect the contents of your own dreams (rather than the dreams of some imagined target audience)—writing fiction is just hopelessly boring, too dull for any normal human to endure regardless of the reward that may lie at the end.
Trying to write about something you don’t care about is like trying to be someone you’re not: it just doesn’t work in the long-term, and novels are quite long. “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be trash, but it wasn’t written with the intention of duping the gullible public into buying a piece of trash: it clearly was written as an earnest and necessary expression of the author’s fantasies, which just happened to tap into the fantasy lives of many other women. This truth may be heartwarming in a sense, but it’s problematic for those of us whose “true selves”—no matter how artfully expressed—simply won’t ever be appealing to a large population of readers (or humans), which is sometimes how I feel.
Still, again, I pushed on, writing a novel that, by necessity, represented my actual desires and fears. As it turned out, that novel really was a young-adult paranormal romance—in the boredom I’d suffered while contemplating how I might exploit the genre to achieve fame, I’d begun to come up with ideas that genuinely interested me, mostly revolving around the ways in which the genre’s conventions could be subverted in order to express the real pain of being a young person. What I ended up with was a strange (but, to me, delightful) 84,000-word manuscript in which every commercial element of its “source material” (i.e., “Twilight”) was negated.
Will anyone besides me ever want to read it? I have no idea. This does matter, at least a little, but you kind of just have to act like it doesn’t.