Something not mentioned often in reviews of books is the writer’s sense of joy.
Writing, whatever you may think, really is hard. Done well, it’s as taxing as any other job. You can’t just show up and watch the clock. Sure, some books are better than others, and good writers can write bad books, but unless you’re James Patterson or someone at that level, you don’t have the luxury of just typing something out and sending it off. Everything you do has to be bled, sweated and cried over.
And with a lot of books, you can tell. Many a serious literary novel bears the marks of its writer’s angst like battle scars, and those same authors often parade their injuries as proof of their sincerity, like Henry V says the veterans of the Battle of Agincourt will do one day. That plays into the idea of the Tortured Artist, a cliche so insidious and romantic that many beginning writers assume that if they’re not miserable, they’re doing it wrong.
I work hard at being a writer. I write every day, averaging around a thousand words, and that’s in addition to revising, editing and researching. I’m usually reading at least three books, some for fun, most for work. I’m always thinking about writing, often to the detriment of my other activities (“Dad? Dad? DAD!”) But even with all this, you know what?
Writing is fun.
I was reminded of this when I read, back to back, Umberto Eco’s two most recent novels, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and The Prague Cemetery. Eco wrote one of my favorite novels ever (Foucault’s Pendulum), and is probably best known for The Name of the Rose, which became a hit movie with Sean Connery, Christian Slater and F. Murray Abraham. Eco is undoubtedly literary; he’s written scores of nonfiction books and essays, and his novels are dense, vastly researched and lacking in any obvious plot structure or characterization tropes. And he writes in Italian, so he has to be translated, the sure sign of something literary.
But I’ve never read anyone, even through translations, who so thoroughly conveys the joy he feels in writing. In The Prague Cemetery you can practically hear him giggling between the lines as he references historical events and personages in sudden, often pratfallish jokes that contrast with the novel’s very serious theme. The central conceit of Foucault’s Pendulum is, in fact, a joke gone wrong: the publishers of a vanity press for conspiracy theorists decide, on a whim, to combine all the paranoid ramblings into one grandly unified Conspiracy Theory, then discover that their Frankenstein concept might actually be true.
I hope some of that same joy comes through in my writing. I take it seriously, sure, and deal with some serious things, but I also believe that the experience of reading won’t be fun if the experience of writing is totally miserable. I want people to laugh along with my books, to remember them as enjoyable journeys, however serious their ultimate intent. Life is miserable and difficult enough without paying to experience it in prose.