By Joseph Epstein
Published: September 28, 2002
According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them — and that they should write it. As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I’d like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them.
Before I had first done so, writing a book seemed a fine, even grand thing. And so it still seems — except, truth to tell, it is a lot better to have written a book than to actually be writing one. Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.
Why should so many people think they can write a book, especially at a time when so many people who actually do write books turn out not really to have a book in them — or at least not one that many other people can be made to care about? Something on the order of 80,000 books get published in America every year, most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary.
I wonder if the reason so many people think they can write a book is that so many third-rate books are published nowadays that, at least viewed from the middle distance, it makes writing a book look fairly easy. After all, how many times has one thought, after finishing a bad novel, ”I can do at least as well as that”? And the sad truth is that it may well be that one can. But why add to the schlock pile?
Beyond the obvious motivation for wanting to write a book — hoping to win fame or fortune — my guess is that many people who feel they have a book ”in them” doubtless see writing it as a way of establishing their own significance. ”There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart,” wrote Samuel Johnson, ”a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself.” What better way to put that distinction on display than in a book?
The search for personal significance was once nicely taken care of by the drama that religion supplied. This drama, which lived in every human breast, no matter what one’s social class, was that of salvation: Would one achieve heaven or not? Now that it is gone from so many lives, in place of salvation we have the search for significance, a much trickier business. If only oblivion awaits, how does one leave behind evidence that one lived? How will one’s distant progeny know that one once walked the earth? A book, the balmy thought must be: I shall write a book.
Forgive me if I suggest that this isn’t the most felicitous way to do battle against oblivion. Writing a book is likely, through the quickness and completeness with which one’s book will die, to make the notion of oblivion all the more vivid.
There is something very American in the notion that almost everyone has a book in him or her. (In the survey of 1,006 Americans, sponsored by a small Michigan publisher, almost equal numbers of people said they wanted to write a novel, a nonfiction work, a self-help book or a cookbook.) Certainly, it is a democratic notion, suggesting that everybody is as good as everybody else — and, by extension, one person’s story or wisdom is as interesting as the next’s. Then there is the equally false notion of creativity that has been instilled in students for too many years. It was Paul Valéry who said that the word ”creation” has been so overused that even God must be embarrassed to have it attributed to him.
Misjudging one’s ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don’t write that book, my advice is, don’t even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.