Why Unpublished Novelists Keep Writing

A veteran receiver of rejection letters talks about fiction-writing as a calling

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"Somewhere in the world right now, ten million souls are hunched over their keyboards writing novels," begins Alix Christie at The Economist's More Intelligent Life. "Ten million hopeful scribblers in their holes. Good Lord, I'm one of them." Her point is that there are a lot of novels published each year, but even more that aren't. "In the face of such odds, merely writing a novel must seem perverse," she admits. "Self-indulgent, at the very least, if not financial suicide." So why do people do it? Why does she do it? Here are the explanations she offers from her own experience as a published journalist and fiction writer, but never-been-published novelist.


I've come to see how helpful it can be to see ourselves as striving toward some mastery in craftsmen's terms. The guilds have always known that it takes years to become skilled at a craft. The standard term was seven, split into years of formal training and then the "wander years". Learning from mistakes has always been an inevitable part of the education.


What helps keep me going, though, is literature itself. With its heft, its moral purpose and its beauty, it is a counterweight to our increasingly flighty and commercial world. And in this, I'm very far from all alone. Most writers gird themselves with courage from like-minded souls.


We live in a time of extraordinary openness, when anyone with an internet connection can publish. ... This torrent of expression inevitably provokes existentialism in a writer. What makes any of us think that we have something to say that others need to read?

If I have stuck to writing fiction through these long, hard years, the only reason is my belief that I have got a story that I must tell. It is this impulse--journalistic and human, as much as self-expressive--that is both anchor and guide. ...

The rest is simply grit and determination, qualities that all reporters have.


Like art of any kind, stories have a function in society. They offer new ways of seeing, of feeling empathy, of making sense of ourselves in this world. Novels, in particular, exist to give us courage. ... As I struggle against the odds, it seems to me the act of writing in itself partakes of this same courage. It is an act of faith. Each day we legions of the unknown, we ten million, rise and face the blankness of the page. And in the painful act of making worlds, we make ourselves.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.