Hanif Kureishi: even the best writers face rejection

Of all the questions authors get asked, the most puzzling but persistent is what others might think of what the writer has produced. These potential disapprovers could be the writer’s spouse, family, colleagues, community or neighbours. It doesn’t matter exactly who they are. Yet the question of these opinions is clearly a crucial one for apprentice artists. When they begin to work a chorus of censure and dissent, if not of hate, starts up. The writer becomes inhibited by concerns about the effect his or her words might have. The writer could become anxious, stifled or blocked. They could begin to hate their own work, or become phobic about beginning.

Materials put online by the British Library this week detailing the lives of 20th century writers are testament to this; we see TS Eliot worrying about The Waste Land – “I do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivienne’s opinion as to whether it is printable …” – and rejection letters to James Joyce (from Virginia Woolf) and George Orwell (from Eliot), which show even these literary greats had to overcome early criticism and disapproval of their work.

Here the artist is generating a kind of lurid fantasy, and not one that is of use. In truth, when you begin writing you will have no idea what anyone will think. If the writer has some level of integrity, he or she will always do her best work and will eventually discover whether others are indifferent, wildly enthusiastic or something else altogether. But the assumption of the nervous writer engaged in this doomscript – this omnipotent view – is that she has already aggressively provoked or hurt someone. Not only that: these “neighbours” will retaliate. There will be guilt and a terrible conflict, so why bother at all?

This rigmarole implies that words are dangerous – that they can upset, thrill, provoke and change lives, which is useful knowledge. Good writers are aware that they work not for themselves, but to do something to a reader: words are powerful magic which must evoke strange and terrible worlds.

But what of these “neighbours”? What are they doing in this internal scenario? Will the wrong words persuade them to abandon you? François de La Rochefoucauld describes this fallacy well. “That which we call virtue is usually no more than a phantom formed by one’s passions.”

From one point of view, this virtue could be called conscience. To put it kindly: here the writer is considering others, and how could anyone argue with such benevolence? Nevertheless, conscience is a less effective description of what is taking place than the notion of the superego, an idea Sigmund Freud developed after the first world war, linking it to hate, depression, masochism and what he called the death instinct. Conscience implies concern, if not decency. The notion lacks the devilish, if not sadistic dimension that the idea of the superego has, where the “good” becomes an obstacle to the truth. It is not that the writer has committed a crime of speaking, but rather that she is already guilty and always will be.

Ultimately this is not a moral question about doing harm to others. It concerns self-harm, the enigma of self-persecution and how you can begin to fear your own imagination. The writer might be a voyeur who likes to exhibit herself. This is partly what it means to present something to an audience – the wish to be known, to inhabit a persona, accompanied by a certain shamelessness.

But even as we speak we also wonder if we are more monstrous than we can bear. We believe that if we were good we wouldn’t have aggressive or violent thoughts, forgetting that monstrousness is useful in art, which, to be effective, has to be pushed to an extreme, making the audience tremble. Art emerges from what Friedrich Nietzsche called “inner anarchy” and never from so-called decency.

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